Daniel Caesar Rips Up the Formula: "I'm Only Going to Go More and More Off the Rails"

The artist takes a methodical approach to challenging his audience's expectations

Photo: Vladimir Kaminetsky

BY Emilie HanskampPublished Apr 5, 2023

.Daniel Caesar has been wrestling with his ego. 

He sets the scene of himself on a remote farm in Peterborough, ON, laboriously drafting and redrafting the concept of what would eventually become his new album, NEVER ENOUGH. His ego was urging him to head in a completely new direction and step on the gas. Another voice was pulling him back, reminding him that going rogue could be a fast track to dismissal.

"I think there's nothing worse than a brilliant album that's not heard by anybody," the 27-year-old artist, born Ashton Simmonds, tells Exclaim! during a brief touch-down in Toronto.

The balance between ego and commercial realism is one that most artists have to contend with. Caesar's brand of intellectually erotic, gospel-tinged R&B has earned him billions of streams, collaborations with genre-leading artists, and a Grammy. But once you build a fan base around a sound, it sets a precedent, making creative left turns all the more challenging. If maneuvered properly, we commend an artist's innovation. When executed poorly, you get a band like Queen releasing a one-and-done dance record after a decade of building rock momentum. In Caesar's mind, a successful deviation could only be done gradually and strategically.

"I resent it, but I think there's a way to reach the public," he says. "You can't just do what you want. You have to be methodical with the way you do things."

Part of that methodology involved checking his ego. At an album listening event the night before our talk, Caesar told a room full of industry folk that his breakthrough occurred on a trip abroad. After a day of art exhibits and magic mushrooms, he returned home to find that someone on his team had compiled a selection of tracks that the singer had previously dismissed. While his fans might enjoy these songs, he thought they had come to him too effortlessly to be valued. Where was the sweat? The struggle? The ensuing victory lap?

In a somewhat altered state of mind, Caesar was able to hear and appreciate the music anew. He realized that his next album could be a combination of the Daniel people were familiar with and the one he wanted us to meet — it didn't have to be one or the other. As a result, much of NEVER ENOUGH stems from Caesar's signature sonic sandbox. Fans can count on nihilistic love songs delivered overtop of layered, chilled-out production — this time with a more prominent reggae and dub influence reflecting the singer's recent stays with his family in Jamaica.

Interspersed among those tracks, however, listeners will find some wildcards. Caesar acknowledges that they won't be the ones getting radio play, but that doesn't seem to bother him in the slightest. In fact, he predicts that the least played songs on NEVER ENOUGH are probably his favourites. Therein lies the necessary push and pull between artist and audience.

"You can't alienate people. You gotta leave breadcrumbs," he says. "[People] need to be led gently. It's like a shepherd, you know?"

One of the more prominent breadcrumbs on the album is "Shot My Baby," a country-meets-psych rock murder ballad. It's a firm departure from Caesar's R&B home base, not to mention his first foray into fictional songwriting. In the vein of SZA's "Kill Bill," the track takes listeners through a revenge fantasy about an ex. Caesar lights up at the mention of the song, but laments the resistance he experienced in the same breath.

"I was playing with ideas and stuff, and it's shocking how scared people are," he explains. "People are terrified of just making things, and it's a shame."

Earlier this year, trap rapper Lil Yachty released a psych rock album to the surprise of virtually everyone. Caesar was featured on that project, Let's Start Here., and witnessed the uproar in response to an artist veering so far off his predetermined course. He doesn't fear the same reaction.

"That's what I'm hoping for," he asserts.

Many artists will sit across from you and tell you that they don't care what people think. Some of them will be telling the truth. Most of them won't be. While Caesar wants to be indifferent to validation, he hasn't arrived there just yet. As he sinks further into a plush sectional at Universal Music Canada's headquarters, he veers off into one of many monologue-like reflections, almost as if he's chasing his thoughts as they come to him.

"My ego can be fragile, so I'm careful with what I show to the world," he admits.

Throughout NEVER ENOUGH, Caesar explores the price of vulnerability — what it grants you in healthy relationships, what it robs from you in untrustworthy ones. The result is a tightrope walk between checking your ego and protecting it — a balance the singer continues to grapple with today.

"Even in something like this," he gestures to the two of us sitting across from each other, "I'm very confident, but it's like, I watch what I say." His eyes widen, side-eyeing me knowingly, before he continues, "I've learned to watch what I say because sometimes your confidence can offend other people."

For some, that offence peaked in March of 2019, when Caesar made a series of controversial comments about race. After social media personality YesJulz (who is white) came under fire for her repeated criticisms of Black women and her use of a racial slur, the singer took to Instagram Live in her defence. Caesar, who repeated that he was drunk throughout the livestream, asked his Black audience, "Why are we being so mean to white people right now?" before adding that "being a victim doesn't get you paid" and suggesting that Black people accept the "winning team's strategy." He then invited people to "make [him] broke" and cancel him. That's exactly what some fans chose to do.

Caesar later apologized for "how [he] expressed [his] idea." He surprise-dropped his second studio album, CASE STUDY 01, three months later to lukewarm reception. In the four years since, he signed with a major label and released one-off singles and features with the likes of Justin Bieber, FKA twigs and Omar Apollo. He's also had time to reflect on the power of perception.

"You can tell a man through his actions. So when I see other people's actions, I know what type of time they're on. Sometimes I assume that, through my actions, people can tell what type of time I'm on, but they can't. And it's up to me to understand that and to move accordingly," he says. "Don't be idealistic. Don't expect the best from people, because it's there, but you probably won't get it."

On his latest album, Caesar yearns for his youth and mourns what has been lost, or taken, in the years since — innocence, idealism, a sense of trust and blissful ignorance. With a sort of Peter Pan syndrome, he reflects on the way time has slipped through his fingers.

The singer looks back with particular fondness on his chapter in Toronto. In many ways, it was a time rife with adversity. Having grown up in a religious household in Oshawa, he moved out at 17 after being expelled from school and clashing with his parents over his decision to pursue music. He settled in Toronto, where he spent a period cycling between couch surfing and sleeping on park benches.  After some local gigging and a couple of successful EPs, Caesar's name became the knee-jerk response to "the next big thing coming out of Canada."
 "Those were some of the best times of my life," he says through a smile.

Despite his love for the city, Caesar hasn't lived in Toronto for years. Things have changed too much since his days spent running around Ossington. It's a gulf reflected in the aptly named "Toronto," a new track featuring fellow Toronto artist Mustafa.

"I'd get depressed when I came home because I was like, this is not the same city. It's just different," he laments. "I don't even know where to go, I don't know who to hang out with anymore. And then you go and find new people to hang out with and it's hard because they're like, 'That's Daniel Caesar. That's not Ashton.'"

He recounts the coming-of-age dilemma of walking into a familiar haunt and realizing you're the oldest in the room. 

"There is no place for me anymore. I aged out."

Caesar might like to dig his heels into the moment and fend off adulthood a little longer, but he knows he can't stop the clock. He seems to counterbalance the nostalgia with intention, describing NEVER ENOUGH as one stop on a fresh creative journey. For those who choose to stick around, he promises more left turns along the way.

"This was a very specific point in my career — my first album with a major label," he reflects. "But I have a master plan, and I'm only going to go more and more off the rails."

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