Sitting in a vinyl booth at an upscale French restaurant in his native Toronto, Daniel Caesar is multitasking, leading the creative planning for his upcoming tour stop in Asia as he fields scheduling questions from his team of young creators with bubbly excitement. He has a toothy smile and a warm laugh — in contrast to the somber, reflective mood of the music that thrust him into the spotlight during the past year.
All the attention, he says, “is weird — it’s cool, it’s awesome, but it’s pressure, because I realize that everything I say matters more, so I have to choose the things I say carefully.”
At 22, Caesar has become one of R&B’s most talked-about talents, even though — or perhaps because — he’s more of a classic soul man than a trend-chaser. His debut album, Freudian, released in August 2017, secured him two Grammy nominations: best R&B album (alongside Bruno Mars, SZA and Kehlani) and best R&B performance for album single “Get You” featuring Colombian-American singer Kali Uchis, which peaked at No. 11 on Billboard’s Hot R&B Songs chart. In 2017, he performed on Late Night With Seth Meyers and The Late Late Show With James Corden, and premiered a new track, titled “First World Problems,” alongside Chance the Rapper on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Former President Barack Obama put Caesar’s “Blessed” on his annual personal playlist of favorite songs of the year alongside artists like Harry Styles and Kendrick Lamar. To date, Freudian has earned 353 million on-demand streams in the United States and accrued 234,000 equivalent album units, according to Nielsen Music.
While other contemporary R&B artists cross over with a blend of bravado and contemporary hip-hop production, Caesar’s sensual music doesn’t sound like today’s trap-leaning hits. “He’s blessed with a timeless voice,” says Uchis. “I remember first hearing his songs and wondering how he hadn’t blown up already.”
Freudian trades the glamour of the club for the authenticity of everyday experiences. “The way I can justify how well [my music is] doing and exactly why that is is because I went through it,” explains Caesar. “And I know it came from a real place. [Listeners] cling to it; they need it.”
With the help of a team of creative collaborators including Jordan Evans and Matthew Burnett (Drake, Eminem), Caesar has done all this without a major label. It’s a notable feat for an artist operating in a system where independent success tends to result in a corporate deal. “We sat through a lot of pleasant label meetings,” he says, “but none of them reflected the value we placed on our work.”
Originally from the working-class city of Oshawa, Ontario, Caesar got his start singing in Seventh-day Adventist churches with his three brothers. After being kicked out of his predominantly white, Christian private school for a marijuana-related infraction, Caesar moved to Toronto at 17, falling into the tumultuous romantic relationship that would inspire his later songs. “It was fun at the time,” he says. “Then it got not fun at all. The feeling of being understood can be addicting; it makes you stay in relationships you don’t want to be in.”
His first EP, 2014’s Praise Break, attracted notice for what it didn’t sound like: the moody, synth-driven tone usually associated with Toronto R&B. On his 2015 EP, Pilgrim’s Paradise, he crafted psychedelic lullabies inspired by love and loss themes he carried over to Freudian: “My life’s a spectacle, a sad story/Perhaps I’ll find my way to the glory,” he sings on the unexpectedly swaggering “Hold Me Down.”
Freudian showcases Caesar’s skill as a talented multi-instrumentalist (he plays guitar and piano), moving between the fullness of gold-toned strings and sparse melodies reminiscent of D’Angelo. Caesar brought in an all-female cast of features — Syd, Charlotte Day Wilson, H.E.R. and Uchis — to offer perspectives from both sides of the romantic equation. “We didn’t set out to only have female vocalists,” he says. “For every song, we thought, ‘This person would be great for it,’ and it was a female every time. You only get one side of the story if it’s too much masculine energy. It’s just logical to me to try and balance myself out.
“People want to feel like they’re being heard,” he continues. “So all the feelings and thoughts that we go through that are socially unacceptable, less than ideal — if they can see someone else going through it, someone that they respect, then it makes them feel different about their own situation.”
While he has yet to confirm any plans for new music, Caesar intends to tour Europe and Australia this year, play Coachella — and, of course, attend the Grammys, all with a newfound perspective on how to navigate his sudden rise and the responsibilities it brings. “I didn’t realize the power that I have,” he says. “But now? I’m coming to understand it.”
Meet 2018’s R&B Class
Three artists poised for breakout success in 2018.
Britain’s Smith made waves with her 2016 debut Project 11 EP, then Drake tapped her for two tracks on 2017’s More Life. She has already secured a 2018 Critics’ Choice BRIT Award and a breakthrough single, “On My Mind.”
Hailing from Chicago, Lenae independently released her debut EP, Moon Shoes, in August 2015. She followed with the Midnight Moonlight EP in 2017, amassing 16.5 million on-demand U.S. streams, according to Nielsen Music.
The X Factor UK 2014 contestant became a DJ Mustard protégée when he discovered her on Instagram. The producer helmed her debut Time EP in 2016, which Mai followed with a pair of EPs and an opening slot on Kehlani’s 2017 tour.