Clams Casino has made a career of producing stratospheric head-space beats for artists from ScHoolboy Q to The Weeknd. The sound he originally curated helped elevate the careers of an entire roster of so-called “cloud rap” artists, but Clams’ musical style has hardly remained confined to a single genre, much less a subgenre. Through both direct contribution and indirect influence, he’s helped define much of the sound that hip-hop in general has taken on over the past decade.
As a result, Clams Casino, who goes by Michael Volpe when he’s at the DMV, has always maintained a following apart from the artists he contributes beats to. He’s previously acknowledged as much with the release of an EP and three mixtapes which pieced together odds and ends and offered up instrumental versions of his tracks, but these releases remained secondary to his role as a beat-provider for other artists.
Now, on his debut studio album 32 Levels, Clams Casino has finally moved his name from the liner notes to the album cover, enlisting a whole cadre of collaborators for 12 tracks of entirely new content.
The album is essentially split into two parts, with the first half focusing on hip-hop while the second takes on a more melodic feel. To that end, the first six tracks are built around contributions from rappers Lil B, A$AP Rocky, and Vince Staples, all of whom he’s provided beats for in the past.
Staples takes the lead on “All Nite,” a glitch-addled track which could have been right at home on the LBC rapper’s Summertime ‘06 album, alongside the Clams-produced “Norf Norf.” It’s not quite as at home on 32 Levels, but it’s a welcome addition all the same since Staples shows up in his signature style, serving up more of the rapid-fire tales of Long Beach gang culture that made his own albums hits.
But it’s Lil B who gets the lion’s share of feature time on 32 Levels, racking up four separate guest spots on the album. This should come as no surprise considering the long-term collaborative relationship that the Based God has shared with Clams Casino, but it’s ultimately disappointing if you’ve come to grips with the fact that Lil B just isn’t a good rapper.
He fails to keep up with Rocky on “Be Somebody” and he squanders two good beats with his listless anti-flow on “32 Levels” and “Witness,” turning in rhymes like, “Big boss, call me big boss, call me Rick Ross/ Fredo Santana, yeah I got the hammer/ Yeah I’m army strong with that pink bandana/ I’m a Navy SEAL so you know I get scanners/ Call me a Marine cause my money come faster.”
As the late Capital STEEZ once rapped, “They say hard work pays off, well tell the Based God don’t quit his day job.”
But I digress. Part of the thrill of being a Clams Casino fan is getting to have your pick of which vocal tracks make the cut on your playlist, while getting instrumental versions of everything else. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure, and everybody wins. Volpe’s production can stand on it’s own musically–as evidenced by “Skull” and “Blast,” the only two tracks on the album not to feature guest appearances–or it can be augmented by artists from a range of different genres.
By the time the sixth track is over, so is the focus on hip-hop, shifting toward a more indie pop and R&B tone. Unlike much of Volpe’s previous work, which leaned heavily on vocal samples from artists such as Imogen Heap, 32 Levels features more original instrumentation and direct vocal contributions, particularly on the second half of the album.
Kelly Zutrau of the band Wet, Samuel Herring from Future Islands, and solo artist Kelela stand out in particular, with Herring sounding like some strung-out, robotic approximation of Nick Cave on “Ghost in a Kiss,” and Kelela sounding every bit as urgent on “A Breath Away” as she did on her excellent Hallucinogen EP last year. Some fans might not be as charmed by Mikky Ekko‘s poppy crooning, but again, pick your poison, it’s all here for the taking.
The end result is an album that certainly showcases Volpe’s versatility, if not his ability to stand on his own as a headlining artist. Volpe seems to have forgotten from the start that he’s the headliner here, relegating himself back into liner note territory and allowing his guest artists to command the mix. Ironically, it’s still his Rainforest EP and Instrumentals mixtapes that provide the best evidence for his competence as a solo artist.
Still, he makes a strong case that Clams Casino is a name you should know, negotiating through multiple genres while maintaining his signature sound from start to finish. So if ethereal synths and somnambulant vocals imposed onto 808s with a gritty Southern cadence sounds like something you’d get down with, then you’re bound to find something to like on 32 Levels.
Download 32 Levels on iTunes.
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