Erika de Casier Is Soft and Steely-Eyed on 'Still'

BY Noah CiubotaruPublished Feb 20, 2024


Erika de Casier’s first two solo albums — 2019’s Essentials and 2021’s Sensational — go down like sparkling water. They’re pristinely designed, tightly compact records that move with sinuous fluidity. The two closely resemble each other in structure and sonic scope, shining twin gems that reintroduced the Copenhagen-based artist by her proper name after initially releasing music as Saint Cava, a partnership with producer Andreas Vasegaard. Saint Cava made shadowy, cavernous R&B that fit into the mid-2010s genre shift spurred to a significant degree by artists like SZA, FKA twigs and PARTYNEXTDOOR. But de Casier’s solo work has been most interested in playing with the late ‘90s and early 2000s imperial phase of R&B — calling back to the sounds of Aaliyah, Brandy and girl groups like TLC, 702 and Destiny’s Child — while injecting it with a wide-ranging knowledge of electronic music. It’s fresh and slyly referential.

This slyness appears on a song like Essentials’ “Photo of You.” A camera snaps in the chorus after de Casier entreats her date to let her capture the moment, and a gradual reversal takes place; for the second and third verses, de Casier’s voice is flattened and computerized, her insistence on taking pictures becoming sinister and invasive: “So if you're cool with it, then I’ma take a few / Gonna show all of my friends, they gonna love it too / What you saying? You feel like an object? / You should take it as a compliment, I love you boo.” What starts as an homage to turn-of-the-millennium pop records that embraced new digital technologies and internet connectivity — my phone can capture this moment, all moments, forever! — reveals itself as something more subversive: a cleverly executed commentary on, as Lindsay Zoladz put it when writing about the 21st century loneliness depicted on TLC’s 1999 album FanMail, “how the more time we spend in the digital world, the more we fetishize the real.”

De Casier filled Sensational with that same ingenuity. On several of the tracks and in their accompanying videos, she embodies a persona she named Bianca, a kind of modern business woman archetype who’s always done up to the nines and keen to emphasize that she does not have time for your games. Her theme song is “Busy,” the vigorous UK garage joint on which she laments “Reach for the stars, that’s what I did / I didn’t know I’d get so busy,” before kicking back into optimization during the breakdown, listing a routine of vitamins, meditation, skincare and fitness. While de Casier was known to strike a coy tone with her featherlight vocals, Bianca let her experiment with a spikier attitude, exploring contemporary modes of desire from both amusing and perceptive angles on songs like “Polite” and “All You Talk About.”

Still — de Casier’s new album, produced by de Casier alongside longtime collaborator Natal Zaks with contributions from a coterie of other musicians — brims with just as much character as her last two projects, its very title plotting it alongside them in a continuum. As Essentials and Sensational pre-emptively (and justifiably) praised their own value, Still announces that Erika de Casier, just three records and five years into her solo career, is still here — as if she were a legacy act returning after a decades-long hiatus (see SWV’s 2016 album of the same name). The contrast between this outwardly brash, rapper-like posture with the fact that de Casier has always humbly let her careful, introspective music speak for itself makes this tongue-in-cheek conceit all the more winning.

On Still’s apex piece, “ooh” — which starts with synthetic whizzing that resembles the reedy resonance of Middle Eastern music before an ecstatically maximalist chorus crossed by de Casier’s lurching, stop-start melody (not unlike the hook of the Pussycat Dolls’s “Beep”) — she plants an intertextual reference to a song on her last album, intoning, “It’s okay, it’s just drama, baby / Wrote a song about it, that’s right,” then alley-ooping her own flex by responding in a sidebar: “It was sensational.”

“My Day Off” is an instant standout, its simple opening loop of ascending and descending keys building to the ominous mood of a trap beat. Screwy, crunk-leaning synths are gradually introduced, their volumes increasing until the 808s and chorus break in: “All up in my business like it’s yours” de Casier sings, describing someone who’s gotten far too clingy far too soon (“Don’t you have a hobby? / I can’t think of one”) and, at another point, someone who appears more to be a professional associate (“A little meeting on a Sunday / What do you mean? / You can send me an e-mail / With all of your shit”). She’s drawing boundaries with everyone, deadpanning that they need to “step off of [her] lawn” and let her do her laundry in peace. There’s a risk of corniness when putting such quotidian concerns in a song, but the way de Casier leaves a seething space between each word when asserting “It’s my day off,” the way she taps into a totally undaunted flow for the bridge, the way she remains steady while the snarling beat erupts on her behalf — it’s another evocative, sharply stylized instance of her arch humour.

Other songs on Still lack these creative frameworks and aren’t quite as successful in leaving an impression. “Ice” is a slinking R&B cut that takes its blueprint straight from the above-mentioned imperial era marked by Timbaland, Darkchild and Jermaine Dupri productions. De Casier crafts a perfectly breezy hook, and the Floridian hip-hop-slash-electronic duo They Hate Change come in with equally laidback, classic-sounding verses (the first one by Andre Gainey recalls Ma$e’s features on Brandy’s “Top of the World” or the remix of Mariah’s “Honey,” while Vonne Parks’s flow tumbles acrobatically in the style of Big Boi), but the whole thing feels too frictionless, sliding safely into a proven formula.

“Believe It” sways in the same midtempo range as “Test It”— which appears just two tracks earlier — and though they both narrate a smitten stage of romance, “Test It” is made more distinctive through its flirty extended metaphor of hookups as a kind of personalized shopping experience, one that exists within the larger economic calculus of working to get by: “Can’t wait till I get off tonight / Keep looking at the clock, tik tok,” de Casier whispers over warm keys and crisp live percussion. “Nine to five, I’m at yours at six / Work, you, sleep and repeat and that’s it.” Like “Believe It,” “Toxic” is also a bit flat in terms of concept and charisma, as de Casier outlines the ways her relationship is failing in broad strokes, returning to a simple statement of fact, “Our love is toxic.” It’s sung in such a limp melody it’s as if she’s already accepted the futility of trying with this person.

While Still often sees de Casier carry herself with the attitude depicted on the album's cover — a coolly detached, platinum-coated hitmaker, decked in a leather trench and big black shades — she’s incandescent when she ditches the remove and scales down her productions to spotlight the detailed emotionality of her voice, constructing richly textured reveries with an almost-fairy tale quality. “The Princess” is an especially fitting example: it starts with de Casier singing over gently plucked guitar in a low, throaty register — unrecognizable as hers at first — before she rises out of it, drifting into her head voice atop the minimal arrangement. There are deep bass notes and sporadic atmospheric flourishes: a faint hint of woodwind, a single dusting of sparkles. Every ounce of her anguish is conveyed as she reflects on the apparent misalignments of committing herself wholly to a partner while also wanting to be a mother and self-sufficient career woman. “Anxious” is just as gorgeous with its pitter-pattering live instrumentation and vocal melodies swirling freely through the verses, while “Twice” bears a trace of its guest Blood Orange’s scrambled drum patterns, which de Casier mirrors by suddenly switching time signatures midway through the chorus. It’s a disorienting moment akin to the one documented in the song: when someone you’ve fallen for unexpectedly goes cold on you.

Still comes to a close with “Someone,” a perfect ending for the way it enfolds all facets of Erika de Casier. It’s a stuttering rap beat when she’s telling her lover not to dismiss her; it’s a wide-open sky when she softens her edge and admits she just wants someone to listen, the rhythm section cleared away and choir pads creating a transcendent, cinematic passage. It’s moving when she recalls being given the trite piece of advice, “Just be yourself, you can’t be no one else” and says she couldn’t heed it because she was just doing her best to be someone at all. The choir pads return on that final note, a trance synth slowly surfacing as you’re left contemplating everything the song was: tough then tender, a staggering electronic showcase and a stirring emotional performance. Through it all, de Casier shows that perhaps there is no one true thing to be, one true self. She’s so much more. 


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