It seems almost absurd that 32 Levels, New Jersey producer Clams Casino's just-released album, is his first. To be fair, there had been a ground swell of activity over the last several years that led to a hefty catalogue of solo material outside of making beats for rappers like A$AP Rocky, Lil B, Mac Miller, Schoolboy Q, and many more. But, it's been a good three years since the artist born Michael Volpe delivered his third and most recent mixtape, the adeptly-titled Instrumentals 3. Add to that, it's been a full five years since he first offered up the cloudy Rainforest EP. Perhaps the biggest question behind surrounding the arrival of a proper studio debut from Clams Casino this year isn't "why hasn't he yet?", but rather "why is he doing this now?" A collection that manages to yield some of the soundscaper's bravest explorations, while also possessing some stale retreads, it's quizzical, to say the least.
It's fitting, even touching, that 32 Levels begins not with the codeine-coma beatwork Clams Casino has built his career around, but the carefree voice of Bay Area rapper Lil B. The two had first connected when, unsolicited, fledgling producer Volpe had sent off a few beats to the likewise on-the- rise rapper. This led to three joint pieces on B's 6 Kiss mixtape from 2010, and a few more tracks over the years. Amazingly, 32 Levels marks the first time the two had ever worked together in the same recording studio.
"You done made it, baby," B reports proudly on opening track "Level 1," adding of his trust in Volpe's ear, "Leave it up to Clams, he got us." As this goes on, the producer threads a heavenly, hazy whirl of echo-blown female vocals with a from-the- earth's-core kaboom of bass and spaciously-paced snares. It's triumphant, if a little familiar.
The BasedGod is, literally, Volpe's biggest vocal supporter, showing up on four songs on the LP. Of these, "Be Somebody" is a big time team-up that also ropes in A$AP Rocky. The Mob member's addition is a little soft, though, with the piece balancing bragged-out lines with the self-aware reflection that, at least in the case of 32 Levels, Rocky's just the wingman, here.
Much more confident is Cali rapper Vince Staples' "All Nite," where the "Norf Side" spitter talks Long Beach street life above Clams Casino's earthy, bird chirpin' remodeling of vintage, West Coast 808 beats. "All gas, no brakes, might break your face," former gang member Staples says both playfully and menacingly, adding, "We do this shit all night."
For a formal debut from the beatsmith, there's very little in the way of letting him work his magic on his own. The first half of the album includes one instrumental piece and a collection of MC-adorned cuts that generally fit in with the rest of his oeuvre. The back half, meanwhile, is an uneven mix of experiments.
"Into the Fire" is the record's tamest attempt at something new, the song seemingly going for pop crossover appeal with its basic, one-two beat and congenial synths. Sounding like a mild-mannered Miguel, Mikky Ekko slips in a few hackneyed lines about trying to see someone's "candle." "It's a dangerous test," he sings mutedly, his milquetoast message threatening to flicker out at a moment's notice. Oddly, "Thanks to You" suffers of the opposite problem, with Sam Dew's late night cries coming unhinged beneath a nauseatingly lurched arrangement.
Despite those vocalist's mark-missing tracks, Kelela collab "A Breath Away" is stunning. Stripped to the essentials, there's not much more to take in beyond a miasma of keyboards and the UK singer's intimate observations. Even more stirring is "Ghost in a Kiss," which features Future Islands' Samuel T. Herring. Unlike his recent, traditional soul-smeared collaboration with BADBADNOTGOOD, Herring settles up a bestial, baritone groan beside Clams Casino's sub-zero iciness. A love song dedicated to Herring's "blue lipped baby," it manages to be both unsettling and swoon worthy.
Clams Casino occasionally delivers big with 32 Levels, offering up at least a few solid numbers. That said, the record is too bogged down with guest appearances, ultimately not leaving enough room for the marquee artist's beats to breathe. It's sadly fitting that the grand finale, a lean and mushroom tea-laced
slow drip called "Blast," is a near-perfect instrumental track, save for a few innocuous vocal snippets and some low, pitched-shifted laughter.
It took a three year drought for Clams Casino to reach his 32 Levels. Who knows how long it'll take for his music to fully reach a higher plane.
– review by Gregory Adams