Clams Casino, “32 Levels”
Nutley, NJ, is not a ring of Saturn and native Jerseyan Michael Volpe is not an astronaut. But try telling that to longtime fans of electro-cloud hip hop and rappers such as Mac Miller, A$AP Rocky, and, most pertinently, Lil B, all of whom have benefited from the spacious, starry-sky sounds of Nutley’s production alter ego, Clams Casino.
Pull up plush Lil B oddities such as the wonky “I’m God” and listen between the lines of “Word around town that you livin’ with a halo,” and you can feel Clams Casino’s hot breath, intergalactic atmospheres, and gooey, pliable rhythms on your neck. Based strictly on mood and vibe, Casino’s samples and sequencer-based blobs—the heavenly clouds that gather to make up his open-ended melodies—are mini-universes of their own, a concept that the writers of Doctor Who have either already made their own or should very shortly.
Casino’s trembling tones are often so delicate that the voices that course through his woozy tracks occasionally seem like they’re violating them, as if they’re interrupting a pleasant dream. That’s why his hushed 2011 Instrumentals album and its immediate, winsome, wordless follow-ups worked so well. There was no filter between his dream and yours, no lyrical interpretation or hard, wordy flow to crash the billowy story.
Why does his newly released first vocal album, 32 Levels, work so well, then? Because Casino has allowed each rapper—friends and past collaborators such as B, Rocky, and Vince Staples, whose Summertime ’06 was partially Clams-produced—onto his clouds. 32 Levels is one of 2016’s most welcoming records, one that envelops its guests and bathes them in the pleasures of (space) creature comforts.
With his soundtrack intact, mad-flowing rapper Lil B does his usual improvisational thing here and there throughout the album. Yet for all his freestyling, there is form. Perhaps guided by beats less scattered and jazzy than in the past, the pulse of Lil B’s tracks, like “Witness,” are driven by deep bass and high-oxygenated flutters. On “Be Somebody,” his hot-tempered rap is cooled off and given a guideline by none other than the histrionic A$AP Rocky. It’s almost as if the two weird chatterboxes cancel themselves out for a level of self-control with Casino acting as referee.
Casino’s mix of muted video game tones, Just Blaze–inspired drum bucks, and clustered ambience come through clearly when Vince Staples steps into the ring of “All Nite.” Yes, he’s stoic, and yes, Casino is flighty, and between the two of them it’s like feeling a blend of hard and soft water on your skin at the same time.
It’s too early to tell if 32 Levels will reach the highest echelon of 2016’s hip-hop charts, but if nothing else, it proves that Clams Casino is a master of dizzying heights.