Daniel Caesar at the O2 Academy Brixton
Daniel Caesar really can sing. And until recently, his angelic reputation was as clean as his voice. But this year has proven that the public are happy to kill angels if needs must. It’s a shame that Caesar’s ‘controversy’ in March will appear in as many reviews of his latest work as it will. But it’s hard to avoid. Caesar posted an Instagram video in which he defends Julieanna ‘YesJulz’ Goddard. This was a mistake because YesJulz is a white person who evokes dangerous stereotypes about black people. Why Caesar would actively seek to defend her case – making sure to add that he thinks black people are ‘too sensitive’ – is any disappointed listener’s guess. Caesar’s alliance is speculated to have blunted sales of Case Study 01, his sophomore album, released three months after he went Instagram live. Not that you could tell by looking around a sold-out O2 Academy Brixton, a venue saturated with fans ready to forget the outside world to hear what heaven sounds like from inside.
Caesar commences the night with ‘CYANIDE’, a predatory song with a beautiful melody. Here, Caesar attempts to sabotage a rhythmically irresistible sound with lyrics including ‘I’m not a monster, I’m just a man with needs’ and ‘I guess I’ll come to your crib, uninvited…girl I know you like it’. (Why so creepy, Caesar?) The audience isn’t taken out of their moment. Caesar fails as a self-saboteur, and he will continue to do so each gig – his lyrics may be questionable, but his talent isn’t. Besides, the audience can’t hear specific words above their own rapturous roars.
So far as this gig goes, any sound that drowns out Caesar’s voice is a problem. Some of his performances have such loud production that he becomes just another voice among thousands. This is particularly evident in his performance of ‘Who Hurt You?’ Here, the problem is compounded by an overblown video of a slow-motion stripper – an attempt to get the audience in the mood that leaves them hot and bothered. Unfortunately, the performance is worsened still. It’s typical for Caesar to have a chilled demeanour and, most oftentimes, this isn’t problematic – when you can hear perfect vocals, what’s there to complain about? – but when the production is so unsatisfying, and Caesar isn’t expressing any particular amount of energy, it doesn’t feel cool – it feels cold – like he’s over it and could be anywhere else, where he’d be caring a bit more than not-at-all. Caesar’s voice needs to be front and centre for his laidback attitude to feel inspired. (See his performance of ‘Best Part’ on ‘COLOURS’ for details.)
Caesar’s discography has some clear fan favourites. The audience is reignited when they hear the beat drop for the gospel-indebted ‘Hold Me Down’ and the silkily warm harmonies of ‘Get You’ (ft. Kali Uchis; who is, akin to the aforementioned stripper, projected onto the screen…Caesar has a sex drive, and he wants YOU to know about it). Having performed a very mixed set, Caesar leaves the stage.
Upon his return, the audience is treated to a transcendent encore from the Caesar they’ve been waiting on. An acoustic performance of ‘Japanese Dream’ sees him assume the role of the cutesy and romantic lover he portrayed on Freudian, his debut album. This makes his audience adore him like Caesar adores his blue jeans. An unexpected cover of ‘Jealous Guy’ by John Lennon is impeccably well-judged; a beautiful addition to his repertoire of emotional ballads. And in perfect harmony, the tertiary track is a stripped back version of ‘ARE YOU OK?’ that allows him to hit and maintain divine notes you didn’t think were possible. This finale is a showcase; an exhibit proving that Caesar is one of the best vocalists working in RnB. Something that’s much easier to remember if he forgets his production equipment. (And you forget what he uses his voice for when not singing.)