Life after Graduation humbled Kanye West. Struggling with invasive tabloid coverage amid the death of his mother and a broken engagement, he mused, “Do I still got time to grow?/Things ain’t always set in stone.” Daniel Caesar would later cover “Street Lights” on one of his early EPs, 2015’s Pilgrim’s Paradise. Though he was barely 20 when he recorded it, Caesar’s version (retitled “Streetcar”) captured angst beyond his years. He ditched the electro-R&B but retained the emo confessionalism, backing his falsetto with piano, drums, and guitar. It was a preview of the minimal, ethereal tone of his full-length debut, 2017’s Freudian. The music that followed wasn’t as polished or poetic. “I wanted to free myself from replicating Freudian,” Caesar told interviewer Tom Power in 2020. His new album, Never Enough, poses the question: What if ChatGPT wrote half of 808s & Heartbreak?
Traveling far afield from the gospel arrangements and acoustic ballads that defined his debut, Caesar has collaborated with Justin Bieber, T-Pain, and Free Nationals, picking up pieces of their sounds along the way. He’s erratically experimental on Never Enough—Auto-Tune, pitched-down vocals, random rap verses, Frank Ocean-like ad-libs. “Shot My Baby,” a bluesy tale of infidelity turned manslaughter, is the most intriguing departure from his typical autofiction. He’d been working on “a country-bluegrass type album,” he’s said, but switched directions when longtime producers Jordan Evans and Matthew Burnett weren’t sure what to do with the music. Instead, he lands on woozy psych-R&B that sounds like sleepy karaoke, or else the kind of music you hear in the background of ABC crime-drama trailers.
The album is, in a word, sedated. Many songs open with about 20 seconds of eerily muted or distorted synth. The Slowed + Reverbed midsection of “Ocho Rios” accentuates Caesar’s melancholy and lyrics about prescription pills. “Toronto 2014” romanticizes life before the money and the Grammys. Yet no matter how hoarse or comatose he sounds—“You’re my saving grace… grace… grace”—propulsive drums, divine strings, and gossamer harmonies help to camouflage the weaknesses.
Never Enough leans into the superficially cerebral subject matter of 2019’s Case Study 01, which sampled a theoretical physicist and dedicated a song to a brain lobe. That album was about as pseudo-academic as it gets. But if you’ve ever taken a scenic late-night drive, put on Channel Orange, and were unlucky enough to be accompanied by a suitor hoping to seduce you with Maslow hierarchies and Jordan Peterson quotes, Never Enough will give you flashbacks. “Do I titillate your mind?” Caesar asks on “Do You Like Me?” (Would you believe me if I told you it was co-written by Raphael Saadiq?) Lyrical absurdity peaks on “Vince Van Gogh”: “Used to be ugly, now I’m a handsome Charlie Manson/Wrapped in a Snuggie.” And lest we forget this completely original red-pill observation: “We’re stuck in the Matrix.”
Three standouts, “Always,” “Let Me Go,” and “Valentina,” prove that good old-fashioned love songs and heartbreak ballads remain Caesar’s strong suit. The back half of Never Enough taps into the bedroom R&B of 2018’s “Who Hurt You?” But in a departure from Caesar’s previous duets with women, all of the features on the main tracklist—Mustafa, Omar Apollo, serpentwithfeet, Ty Dolla $ign—are men. “Homiesexual,” an ode to male toxicity, is the most harmonious. “I never meant to make you cry, my girl,” Ty Dolla professes to a lover who’s already moved on. Since he monopolized the Auto-Tune, Caesar balances the track with lustful vocals: “I-I-I know you like it nasty.” When he’s not over-intellectualizing his emotions, Caesar can be disarmingly raw. If only he didn’t write like a cyborg the rest of the time.
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