Putting out a solo record as a hip-hop beat maker is tricky business. Typically your role as a producer is one of background—serving as a springboard for a rapper or singer. But on your own record, however, you have to strike a balance incorporating intriguing features, while not overshadowing one’s own production chops. In the last few years we’ve seen a number of hip-hop beat makers and producers make a name for themselves outside of the famous artists they work with—Flying Lotus, Knxwledge, SBTRKT, and KAYTRANADA to just name a few—and electronica/beat music seems to only be gaining more credibility as an independent and dynamic genre.
Clams Casino, actual name Michael Volpe, is just one of many hot producers venturing into putting out his own solo record. Having developed a fervent following through his work with artists like Lil B, A$AP Rocky, and The Weekend, along with several well received instrumental mix tapes and EP, Clams’ debut LP 32 Levels was a highly anticipated release hip-hop and beat heads alike. The album features 12 tracks (plus 12 instrumentals of the tracks) featuring some familiar players (A$AP Rocky, Lil B) as well as some unique choices, most notably Sam Herring of Future Islands.
32 Levels has two very distinct A and B sides. Side A is distinctly the rap portion, stacked with A$AP, Vince Stables, and several tracks with Lil B. Clams is very clearly in the zone on this section of the album. His beats are tight and masterfully produced, and possess a polish not heard on his previous work like the Rainforest EP. Long time listeners will appreciate the dark, heavy, and aquatic tones and his delicious composition of vocal samples that have come to define Clams unique sound. He utilizes the flows of Rocky on “Be Somebody," and it obvious that he has a deep rapport with Lil B that allows them to build off one another’s musical styles. Vince Staples is particularly strong on his track “All Nite,” which is a fiery banger with almost industrial, syncopated breakdown.
On Side B, Clams’ enters new territory with more pop features like Kelela and Sam Dew, ending with Herring. Unfortunately, this gives a front-loaded feeling to 32 Levels. Clams Is very clearly out of his element on this section of the record, and the adeptness he exhibits with his features on side A is absent on the second half. Frankly, it just doesn’t seem like Clams knew what to do with these singers. There are certainly moments of promise on the B side: Sam Herring gritty baritone jives well macabre musicality of Clams, Kelela’s voice soars on the chorus of “A Breath Away,” but tracks like “Back to You” and “Into the Fire” smack of Top 40 pop and Clams’ stamp seems washed away. Herring and Kelela make the second half worth listening to, but one could certainly skip some of these tracks without missing much.
Despite fizzling a bit, 32 Levels is indicative of an exciting future for Clams Casino. Clams has refined and focused his sound, and there is not doubt that as a hip-hop producer he demands respect. The question that remains is whether Clams will be able to build off the successful experimentation on this record to find his pop sensibility, or if he will be better served staying in his own wheelhouse.