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Album of the Week: Clams Casino's 32 Levels

On July 18, 2016

by Renato Pagnani



Every week, we tell you about an album we think you should spend time with. This week's album is the long awaited debut by producer Clams Casino, 32 Levels.

As decreed by the Based God himself: "Leave it up to Clams, he got us." But while the words are Lil B's, the sentiment—complete and absolute trust in the hands of New Jersey producer Clams Casino (neé Mike Volpe), with whom he's made some of his most iconic tracks—does not belong to him alone. Uttered on "Level 1," the opening track of Clams' major label debut, the words could conceivably have come from the mouth of any of the artists Clams has worked with over the last half-decade, because if there's a single takeaway from 32 Levels, it's that, as with any producer worth his Pro Tools, Clams' primary focus is squeezing the best out of those who enlist him for beats.

It's this in-service-of-the-song approach that has made Clams a winning collaborator. Structured as two halves—split right down the middle are distinct rap and pop/R&B sections—32 Levels eases listeners in with the familiar before moving into less charted territory. To Clams' credit, the shift isn't as abrupt as it sounds. A bait-and-switch the album is not: its second half, although more uneven than its first, is the more interesting of the two. It's here where bizarre-on-paper collaborators like Mikky Ekko ("Into the Fire") and Future Islands frontman Samuel T. Herring ("Ghost in a Kiss") feel natural, even if there's only so far a producer can take Mikky Ekko. Clams understands when to pull back and give his collaborator space and when to lean in and add a splash of color. He also has a snack for structure that maximizes impact. "A Breath Away", the album's crowning achievement, is lone flower blooming in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Kelela's dry ice vocals are allowed to seep into the cracks of the track, which is given the room to luxuriate in sparse but warm surroundings. It almost reaches the five-minute mark but feels like it could stretch out for hours.

A defining trait of Clams' production has always been its ability to stand on its own when the rappers were removed from the equation. Sans A$AP Rocky, "Palace" still absolutely works. "Illest Alive" suffers not one iota if you remove Main Attrakionz from its blender-job of a Bjork classic. And without the collective spirit of Bone Thugs infusing it via Pretty Flacko, "Wassup" doesn't fall apart—if anything, it becomes easier to admire all of the track's moving parts and the subtle touches that make it such a memorable beat. Clams beats feel whole—and, for some, especially—even when divorced from their initial context, something that cannot be said about the beats of many beatmakers, even those with a firm foot in the pantheon.

Suffusing all Clams production, and found in abundance on 32 Levels, is a sense of directed drift, the kind of floating that has a destination in mind. "Be Somebody," which finally unites A$AP Rocky and Lil B on the same song (of course this long-awaited summit would occur over a Clams Casino beat), and turns Mikky Ekko  into a woozy one-man Gregorian chant; the effect is that of stumbling into a ritualistic sacrifice. "Skull," the first of two pure instrumentals on the entire album, is a portentous creeper that sounds like Clams discovered a way to turn a Styrofoam double-cup of the strongest lean directly into a beat; the second, "Blast," is a dense swirl of competing gravities that remains buoyant even as it demolishes everything in its path.

32 Levels proves that Clams is more than a beatmaker but perhaps not the pop auteur he longs to be quite yet. For each "A Breath Away," there are cuts that skirt but never entirely cross into the generic (like the slinky Sam Dew-featuring "Thanks to You"). Credit that to the mileage left in Clams' influential sound. He's already shown more versatility than might be expected for someone who helped define a sound that infiltrated the highest ranks of mainstream music (Rihanna's excellent ANTI is soaked with his DNA). You can hear Clams Casino everywhere in 2016, and based on the 12 songs on 32 Levels, he's still figuring out how far he can push not only his collaborators but himself.

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