With Daniel Caesar’s Freudian at the center, Sajae Elder discusses how faith can manifest in both the spiritual and the secular.
For as much as Daniel Caesar’s debut album reflects on all of the ways romantic love can tear us down and build us back up again, Freudian is a testament to how faith can manifest in both the spiritual and the secular. The space between the divine and the material is often a thin one when it comes to music, with much of what moves us being tied to the evoked emotions instead of subject matter. Believer or not, the pull of the album’s gospel-fueled core is magnetic and as writer Amani Bin Shikhan points out, it’s sometimes difficult to tell if Caesar’s hymn-like odes of love, loss, and longing are just as much about God as they are about earthbound affection.
By Caesar’s own admission, his relationship with religion has long waned; but his strict Seventh Day Adventist upbringing still heavily informs the way he creates. His household was one that revolved around praise and worship, with not much beyond black gospel being a part of his everyday life until his teens when, as he told The FADER in 2016, his rebellion lead him out of his suburban home and into the heart of Toronto’s downtown creative scene. Caesar may have left the church behind him, but its remnants picked up where his 2014 EP Praise Break left off, staying close at hand all over Freudian.
Daniel recently waxed poetic about his top five gospel deep cuts also for The Fader — citing records like Karen Clark Sheard’s “God Is Here” and Commissioned’s “No Weapon” as some of Praise Break, and subsequently Freudian’s, biggest inspirations. It was evident that his understanding of soul would come by way of gospel’s constant exchange between secular genres.
“I remember [my producer] was showing me some [New Jack] swing stuff, like Jodeci and I was like, ‘Wait, this is Commissioned!’” he muses in the video. “But then, I made that connection. I didn’t realize how inspired artists were by secular music at the time because it just didn’t make it out to me.”
It’s easy to assume that Daniel Caesar would eventually hear much of the R&B classics he admits to missing out on earlier, but it stands to point out just how much breaking the ties that bind traditional soul to gospel is a difficult task. You can hear just as much of Marvin Sapp’s tenderness on “We Find Love” as you do D’Angelo’s affinity for funk on the switch up to the bouncy bassline on “Neu Roses”. What these sounds have most in common is being rooted in the unmistakable sounds that morphed out of spirituals.
The kinds of three and four part harmonies we’ve come to expect from skilled and perfectly in-sync choirs guide the project, nestled perfectly among organ runs, bassline dips and piano riffs that would feel just as at home on a pulpit as they do on Freudian.
The singer-songwriter toes a tricky line that moves the needle slightly away from the somberness that has come to typify Toronto’s sound towards something that feels more like daybreak. Black expression has long been linked to the altars of church houses that meticulously trained much of soul and R&B’s most formidable voices. In those spaces, gospel taught many to push their own vocal boundaries for purposes beyond themselves. Often times, the genre also pulled from secular influences and transposed them for the purpose of devotion; keeping the doors to R&B perpetually open.
On Freudian, Daniel stands in that open doorway, stepping slowly from one side to the other with ease. The most obvious nod to Caesar’s gospel roots is “Hold Me Down,” with the song’s second half lifting its melody from Kirk Franklin and Nu Nation’s “Hold Me Now” to tackle a connection marred by resentment. Kirk’s own sound has often blurred the lines between gospel, traditional R&B, funk, and hip-hop, grabbing samples from everything from Parliament Funkadelic on “Praise Joint” to Tony! Toni! Toné! on “Melodies From Heaven” along the way. It’s what makes Franklin’s — and so many other gospel artist’s — catalogues an inspiration gold mine for scores of secular artists and producers.
The instrumentation we typically associate with gospel provides an important base for so much of Freudian, playing off each other in a way that only musical ministry can. From the hearty organ that grounds “Loose,” to the soft piano and tambourine-accented percussion of “We Find Love” — the album’s sonic spectrum plants it firmly in the services, concerts and conventions that Daniel would have undoubtedly grown up attending.
Where the album’s commitment to notions of the divine shines is in its subtleties. The opening line of “Get You” thanking a love for staying through drought and famine could easily find its place at the top of any sermon and the parallels between“We Find Love” and Donnie McClurkin’s 2001 song “We Fall Down” are hard to ignore, though understated in its execution. On “Blessed,” we get what might be the album’s most spiritual offering; a stripped down cut that relies on Caesar’s voice to deliver its gratitude with the kind of conviction reserved for testimony.
In the end, Freudian plays like a beautifully-tracked journey into the depths of both romantic and self-love; and the adoration of the sacred that finds its way into both. Regardless of whether or not Daniel Caesar still believes in a higher power, it’s evident that one believes in him.
Sajae Elder is a Toronto-based writer, curator, and producer who talks music mostly on Twitter @JaeFiasco.