Review: Clams Casino, “32 Levels”

Though in recent years hip-hop producers like Sonny Digital, Metro Boomin and Mike Will Made It have set themselves apart as their own artists, it’s rare that hip-hop instrumentals do much more than serve as a platform to rap atop. Without dissing, no one is likely to listen back to an Atlanta trap backing track and hear or feel anything other than Atlanta trap. It’s rare that a producer is able to produce a sound which acts in two different ways – both as its own piece of musical genius, and bringing depth and meaning to the words of another artist.

While you may not have heard Clams Casino’s name, you’ve definitely heard his style. Releasing his first EP, Rainforest, in 2011, Clams quickly became the talk of the underground hip-hop town. A bunch of collaborations with Lil B led him straight to A$AP Rocky, and consequently, the birth of the cloud rap sound, perhaps made most famous by the enigmatic Lil B. There’s no denying that tracks like Bass, Wassup and Palace are Rocky’s early best, and while his success took the sound further and out of Clams’ hands, he’s always been the king of the castle. The release of three separate Instrumental Mixtape Volumes meant budding rappers could do their own work over his, and his audience could greater appreciate the complexity and individuality of his sound on its lonesome. Though Clams was so cutting edge and ahead of the times, it’s hard to believe that over 5 years since the release of Rainforest, countless collaborations and remixes, we’re granted with his debut album – 32 Levels.

“The mind is so complex when you’re Based; 32 Levels; Welcome to my world” – Lil B, I’m God

It seems fitting that the album name is taken from one of, if not the most well known and awe inspiring pieces of Clams’ music. I’m God is the definitive Clams Casino track, and is the perfect combination of vocal sampling, heavy bass, atmospheric sounds and twisting synths that are found all throughout his work. 32 Levels opener, Level 1, feels like the spiritual successor to I’m God. “Yes..” whispers Lil B in the first of many vocal features – saying what we’re all thinking, “the album is finally here.” Essays could be written on the way the vocal samples, very reminiscent of I’m God, build and finally crash into an another explosion of bass and flanging sound that’ll send your eyes rolling back – but there’s more to address first.

Without even listening to the album, you can most likely appreciate it by looking at the list of vocal features, first revealed earlier this year. We’re hit right in the face after Level 1 with Be Somebody, the first track to ever feature both Rocky and Lil B on it. “We just made history, you know that right?” Lil B asks, breaking the wall between him and the listener yet again. It’s a match made in heaven, and god knows it’s been a long time coming. Vince Staples rolls through right after that, working the same magic he and Clams had on Norf Norf, this time on All Nite. While Clams has a particular affinity for hip-hop, his production also lends itself amazingly to styles never thought before. Thanks To You, with vocals by Sam Dew is a standout on the record, taking a much lighter tone than usual in both vocal style and instrumentally, but never straying too far from the flock. Kelela also feels right at home on Breath Away, making you wonder why they’ve never worked together before – the same feeling you might experience throughout every first-time collaboration on 32 Levels. Each feels like it could have come from any of these artists’ own catalogue, which is testament to Clams’ skill for bringing out the best performances of those he works with.

That said, the man himself has said before that he prefers not to get involved in the songwriting process, even going so far as to not have anyone in mind when creating his beats. Taking this into consideration, these songs have no overarching themes or tone; instead, this is an album tied together through its sonic motifs more than any thematic concerns.

Although his production has traditionally been on the darker and thicker side of the spectrum, 32 Levels operates on a number of different emotional levels through its sound. Clams’ music has always been about atmosphere, with sounds either directly taken from real life environments like throughout his Rainforest EP, and heard again on All Nite, or built from scratch via spacious sounding synths and echoing percussion. This sense of atmosphere, as all good music should, takes us to another place. Where are we where we’re hearing music like this? It’s otherworldly, almost like the artists singing and rapping inside this world are doing so in some limbo like state, with the emotion behind their words extending further than it ever could have in real life.

There’s always been something about Clams’ sound that seems larger than life, and the trend continues on 32 Levels. Skull sounds near demonic, with Bowser style laughing and haunting flute sounds set alongside clicking snares and hats. Back To You is by far the most pop track on the record, with Kelly Zutrau providing some soft spoken and breathy vocals, but it never feels out of place. Metallic echoes, and her own layered voice hitting high notes before fading away into nothing further cement this idea of place in each track. It’s in this sense of shared depth and space that the album feels completely whole. Each artist isn’t themself, but simply a voice sharing and reflecting on feelings inside the worlds that Clams Casino creates within each of his songs. While he might not play a part in songwriting, everything on this record feels very calculated and very purposeful.

At times, the sheer number of voices on this record can become a little overwhelming. Clams’ environments and atmospheres are often better enjoyed in and of themselves, with no words to distract from the experience. Mr. Casino has obviously learned from the successes of his instrumental mixtapes, and blessed all of us with the same-day release of an instrumentals version of 32 Levels to get the best of both, and all, of Clams’ worlds.

32 Levels is a record that changes with every listen. The space that exists within each of its 12 tracks is like a magnifying glass to the emotions of the listener and the vocalists alike. While according to Lil B there are 32 levels in the Based Mind, it doesn’t seem like Clams Casino has any limits to his work.

Image: Jack Colquhoun for Howl & Echoes