Clams Casino’s anticipated debut is more of a coronation than an introduction, but it’s still a worthy collection of tracks from the religiously revered producer.
“Uh! Goddamn, how real is this?” gasps A$AP Rocky on ‘Palace’, from within a clattering beat that still sucks the air out of any room it plays in. Rocky’s reaction was a natural one; the crushing cymbals, hefty bass wubs and ascending chorus vocals feel nothing short of gargantuan. But at the time, the size was amplified even further by what it hinted at. A year after ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, it seemed like anything was possible within hip-hop production, and this exciting, ethereal new style from unknown, Clams Casino, felt like it could have been the future. The same year, Clams Casino teamed up with independent icon and Based weirdo Lil B on tracks like ‘I’m God’, that were essential in the rise of growing rap personality, and hold up today incredible pieces of rap production: this was music that was simultaneously gorgeous, uplifting and painful.
Excellent remixes for Lana Del Ray, Big K.R.I.T and MF Doom followed, as well as some credits for the Weeknd and FKA Twigs; everyone Mr Casino touched only had their strengths amplified by his production, but it wasn’t until the release of his ‘Instrumental’ mixtape series that the true potential of this artist became apparent.
Without charismatic vocals atop of them, they remained just as eerie, as intriguing, as exhilarating. The previously elusive figure has since been identified as Mike Volpe, a regular old dude and former Physical Therapy student with a skill for production. But the release of his major label debut is the first true moment that he’s stood out of the shadows to show who he is as an artist. Anticipation couldn’t be higher.
As an album, ’32 Levels’ feels more like a flexing of production muscles than it does a cohesive statement, but that doesn’t make it any less worthy of diving into. A diverse group of vocalists pop up, and instead of swallowing them up with his monstrous beats, Clams morphs to fit their strengths. Lil B and A$AP Rocky team up to return the favour on ‘Witness’, a ghostly banger that thrills if not just from hearing the two MC’s flourish on production that fits them so well – sadly their verses don’t impress beyond that.
Vince Staples is much bolder on ‘All Nite’, a spiritual sequel to last year’s excellent collaboration, ‘Norf Norf’. On it, Staples brags about smoking “that angel dust that had K.Dot trippin”, and his brash delivery is enough to make you believe his posturing. Verses like these are a natural fit for such a menacing, propulsive beat, complete with piercing birdsong and twisted, metallic synth shrapnel.
Lil B returns on ‘Witness’ and ’32 Levels’, two charismatic cuts that benefit from the same breathless sense of scale that we’ve come to know from Clams, even when Lil B slumps into sloppy repetition with the half-hearted shoutouts to Africa and Japan(?). The album really is only ever as impressive as its vocalists, a trend that carries forward as it moves away from hip-hop into sung performances in its second half. Sam T. Herring’s ragged, wretched baritone howls are an obvious highlight with ‘Ghost in a Kiss’. Though the singer has displayed more range in terms of melody before, his ability to find the right tone with which to perform is no more clear than on this evocative piano-backed cut.
Clams moves into glistening R&B on ‘A Breath Away’, where minimal, airy synths give suitable space for Kelela’s sharp vocal, before opening to layers of raw percussion on the chorus. Some vocals don’t impress as much, such as Mikky Ekko’s faceless delivery on ‘Into the Fire’, which fails to stick no matter how many times it’s played.
The album’s instrumental closer, ‘Blast’, is a gratifying finish, just as gasping and epic as any production the artist has crafted. On an album this scatterbrained, it’s a needed sense of resolution. Following the album is every track in its instrumental form, a thoughtful touch that gives his listeners a chance to appreciate just how nuanced this collection is, and will hopefully lead to some stunning unofficial remixes down the line from the next game changer. For an artist this promising though, it’s easy to be left wanting more. ’32 Levels’ is not the stunning opus some expected, but there’s a feeling that Mike Volpe is only just getting started.
’32 Levels’ is out now via Columbia Records.
This Clams Casino review was written by Stephen Butchard, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Natalie Whitehouse.