Erika de Casier seems supremely chill. But on “Drama,” the opening track from her sophomore album Sensational, she alludes to the fireworks that might erupt if you cross her. “You want drama? I’ll give you reality show,” she coos. “Night mode camera/ Show you more and more.” She sings about how drama always seems to find her, how she’s sorry for what she did “but when I get down that road … it’s sensational.” She delivers the album title with a wink. These threats to fuck shit up are mere wish fulfillment, a way to step into someone else’s shoes for just a moment. She’s imagining what it might be like to make herself the center of attention. Her music tells a different story. Behind the confrontational words, she expresses herself in moody, laidback shuffles and pulsating layers that move as slowly as tectonic plates. “Drama” is not a song that will make you want to flip a table over — it’s one to close your eyes and nod along to.
de Casier’s dramatics are all kept on the inside and spun into masterfully crafted songs that evoke the lush, big-budget era of R&B and pop music in the ’90s and ’00s. de Casier does the whole orchestral flourish sound on a whole lot smaller of a budget, but sacrifices none of the emotional heft. Her songs are warm and inviting and immaculate. They’re a communal vibe and would sound just as good blasting out of club speakers and they do in a pair of nice headphones. The environment de Casier builds on Sensational is all-encompassing.
Her 2019 debut album Essentials was the sort of release that snuck up on you, bolstered by word-of-mouth and a sound that became more appealing the more you listened to it. It’s a luxurious blend of trip-hop and major-label R&B, complete with pop hooks that land in whispers. If anything, Sensational is even more understated than her debut. Working with co-producer Natal Zaks — who, along with de Casier, is attached to Denmark’s Regelbau rave collective — de Casier crafts music that is measured and elegant.
The songs are textured and smooth, with trilling strings and loping elliptical beats. They’re packed with little touches that reveal themselves with time and add up to an intoxicating whole. It’s a mellow listen but an engaging one, where de Casier is always surprising in what new trick she’ll pull out next — whether it’s the shadowy Tricky-inspired roll of “Friendly” or “Secretly,” which sounds like Disney in the era of Brandy Cinderella. Sensational feels like some long-lost classic from the turn of the millennium, if society were a little cooler and more relaxed.
de Casier came to this muted sound by way of watching a lot of MTV. The channel was a constant in her life when she moved around: Born in Portugal, she moved to a small Danish town when she was 10, spent a year abroad in Vermont as part of an exchange program, and then settled in Copenhagen. Following her were the aspirational anthems of acts like Destiny’s Child and TLC, who sang songs about independence with no hesitation. Real life is more complicated and nuanced than a hit pop song, though, and on Sensational de Casier practices in the same sort of empowerment jam but brings it down to an attainable level, a slinking and level-headed confidence more in line with someone who is not comfortable in the spotlight.
Her songs are about the little ways you can claim comfort and power for yourself: “I thought you knew better than that/ I can do better than that,” she sings on one, then echoes one of the all-time great anthems: “You thought I’d crumble, well baby, nah/ Next time I’ll be quick to see it before I let it get to me.” But it’s all in the delivery. de Casier sings these words with conviction but she never sounds confrontational. She reflects the sort of subtle shifts that the music itself embodies. The relationships she sings about aren’t the sort where screaming, temper tantrum fits take place. They’re more like when you’re in a conversation with someone and something they say makes everything click into place and you immediately see through all their bullshit after being oblivious to it for too long.
There’s a whole lot of roleplaying on Sensational. de Casier uses her songs to inhabit characters, ones that are able to express the emotions she keeps bottled up. On “Polite,” she takes down a guy she went on a bad date with. “Such a pity/ I thought you were so nice/ If you wanna be my type/ You better start being polite,” she sings on the hook, but you get the sense she probably never said any of this to his face. On “All You Talk About,” she distances herself from materialism in favor of something sensual: “Versace this, Versace that/ When you gonna see I’m bored out of my mind, babe?/ Just put your hands on me/ Just giving you some food for thought, baby.” “Busy” has her adopting a kind of boss-bitch persona, someone who is constantly on the move and has no time for romance.
But it’s clear throughout Sensational that de Casier is a hopeless romantic, that all these wishes to be preternaturally chill are just that: dreams of a life in which she’s not so wrapped up in her own head. “I still hold the memories we made/ Maybe that’s why it’s hurting so bad,” she sings on the album’s closing track. “Before I sleep, you are all that’s on my mind/ In case you didn’t know… you can still call me anytime.” de Casier sounds desperately hopeful. The song itself is barely-there, just her warbled vocals and a glossy minimal beat, but de Casier maintains the emotion and tension throughout. It’s really hard to pull off this kind of sound so well — there’s danger for music this pretty and restrained to scan as boring, but Sensational is always exciting. It’s incredibly patient and revelatory in small ways. Not to get too corny about it, but the album is indeed sensational.
Sensational is out 5/21 via 4AD.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour.
• Twenty One Pilots’ Scaled And Icy.
• Lambchop’s Showtunes.
• Mdou Moctar’s Afrique Victime.
• CHAI’s WINK.
• Georgia Ann Muldrow’s VWETO III.
• Fiddlehead’s Between The Richness.
• Young M.A.’s Off The Yak.
• Young Nudy’s DR. EV4L.
• Lord Huron’s Long Lost.
• Lydia Ainsworth’s Sparkles & Debris.
• Nicholas Krgovich’s This Spring.
• Colleen’s The Tunnel And The Clearing
• FACS’ Present Tense.
• Storefront Church’s As We Pass.
• Downhaul’s Proof.
• Gary Numan’s Intruder.
• Billie Marten’s Flora Fauna.
• Charles’ Let’s Start A Family Tonight.
• Claire George’s The Land Beyond The Light.
• Gruff Rhys’ Seeking New Gods.
• Yautja’s The Lurch.
• John Hiatt With The Jerry Douglas Band’s Leftover Feelings.
• Patrick Paige II’s If I Fail Are We Still Cool?.
• Blake Shelton’s Body Language.
• Paula Cole’s American Quilt.
• Monster Magnet’s A Better Dystopia.
• The Cruella soundtrack and score.
• Lily Konigsberg’s compilation The Best Of Lily Konigsberg Right Now.
• Mannequin Pussy’s Perfect EP.