They sound almost nothing like each other, but the second album by Erika de Casier – that rarest of musical phenomena, an R&B artist from Ribe, a small town in southern Denmark – feels like a spiritual counterpart of another recent acclaimed album. Like Rina Sawayama’s 2020 debut, Sensational has its roots in childhood hours spent watching early-00s MTV. But while Sawayama reflected the channel’s scattershot bombardment – a world where nu-metal, Britney Spears, hip-hop and Evanescence all jostled for your attention – Sensational is more intensively focused.
The artwork for Sensational
Born in Portugal to Belgian and Cape Verdean parents, de Casier and her brother were the only two Black kids in their school, and, as she put it, “MTV was the only place I saw other Black people, growing up”. And so Sensational fixates on the era’s R&B. The shinily perfect plunk of a synthesiser set to sound like an acoustic guitar – familiar from Destiny’s Child’s Bills Bills Bills and TLC’s No Scrubs, among umpteen other tracks – crops up, as does a sampled harp, similar to that found on Brandy and Monica’s The Boy Is Mine; the abstract approach of No Butterflies, No Nothing, a shifting patchwork of synths and samples underpinned by a halting beat that keeps threatening to burst into a double-tempo drum’n’bass break, recalls the more outlandish soundscapes dreamed up by Timbaland for Aaliyah’s eponymous third album. Occasionally, the lyrics make an obvious nod in a similar direction, reappropriating familiar lines from Destiny’s Child’s Independent Women Part 1 among others. But clearly R&B wasn’t the only 00s sound to make an impact on de Casier: the electronics on Better Than That and Someone to Chill With have a ring of the era’s big trance hits about them; the combination of sweet melody and skipping beat on Busy recalls UK garage’s crossover pop successes.
For all de Casier’s musical retrospection, she avoids any sense of pastiche. That’s partly because every track arrives bearing a genuinely beautiful pop melody, setting Sensational apart from the massed ranks of alt-R&B releases – a sub-genre that tends to be big on clever production touches and reference points and extremely low on hooks. But it’s also because the sound is shot through a gauzy filter – this is, after all, an album released by 4AD, who have a lot of experience with the gauzy and misty-sounding – that seems to bear the influence both of 90s home-listening electronica: Insult Me would slot on to an old Café del Mar compilation without raising too many eyebrows. (De Casier was affiliated with Aarhus-based dance collective Regelbau, whose more horizontally inclined releases tend in the same direction.) It also bears the influence of trip-hop, a genre that seems to be having a second moment in the sun. But, unlike Arlo Parks’ Collapsed in Sunbeams, another recent album in audible thrall to old Mo’ Wax and Ninja Tune 12ins, it homes in, not on the genre’s crackly old soul and funk samples, but its smeared sonic strangeness and its tone of languid small-hours introspection and melancholy.
Erika de Casier: No Butterflies, No Nothing – video
The latter is a mood that fits both with de Casier’s voice – more fragile and whispery than any 00s R&B diva – and the lyrics, which largely focus on failed or failing relationships (involving mansplainers, braggarts and people she doesn’t actually fancy: she can certainly pick them) with wit and originality. Opener Drama can’t seem to work out whether it’s an apology for an explosion of anger or a coded come-on: “You want drama? I’ll give you a reality show / Night-mode camera / Show you more and more.” Make My Day’s saga of unrequited love retools a series of corny pickup lines (“Do you come here often? And when you fell from the sky did it hurt?”) and there’s something almost Morrissey-esque about its tone of pre-emptive defeatism: “What about tonight? You can turn me down.” Polite, meanwhile, opens with de Casier issuing an exasperated sigh before admonishing her current partner for their bad manners. “I took you on a date in a restaurant / Then you’re rude to the waiter,” she tuts, adding – with a hint of parental admonishment that jars wonderfully against the song’s earlier quotation from 50 Cent’s fairly nasty PIMP – “There won’t be a next time if you keep this up.”
Closer Call Me Anytime, meanwhile, offers a bittersweet kiss-off – her suggestions that she’ll always be there for another ex are drolly tempered by an ominous sounding “You don’t want to make an enemy of me” – and a neat summation of Sensation’s musical appeal: more trancey electronics and warm ambient tones, a melody that one of her R&B heroes might have alighted on with relish 20 years ago, floating over a frantic time-stretched breakbeat sapped of its bass-heavy power. It’s music that looks to the past, made by an artist too original to be a revivalist: memories and retrospection rearranged into something fresh.
This week Alexis listened to
Oneohtrix Point Never and Rosalía – Nothing’s Special
The closing track from the last Oneohtrix Point Never album, its cool breeze drift retooled as a ballad, with an emotive Rosalía vocal.
The Insidexpress is now on Telegram and Google News. Join us on Telegram and Google News, and stay updated.