Published Jul 15, 2016It was three years ago that Michael Volpe, a.k.a. Clams Casino, dropped his third Instrumentals mixtape, and it's been five since he released his influential EP of humid, doleful bangers, Rainforest. So although Clams has kept busy producing for the likes of Danny Brown, A$AP Ferg, Vince Staples and FKA twigs recently, there was a sense that 32 Levels should be something of a grand return — a magnum opus, even.
In that context, it's a bit of a letdown. Opener "Level 1" is sluggish even by Clams' narcotized standards, and followup "Be Somebody," though likeable, doesn't quite reach the heights he hit with guests A$AP Rocky and Lil B on previous work together. It's not until "All Nite," with the aforementioned, ever-effervescent Long Beach rapper Staples, that 32 Levels hits its stride. But even from there, it's not clear sailing.
Putting together a strong full-length statement as a producer is difficult, to be sure: Do you work with guests, which add to the dynamism of a record, but can also upset the sense of cohesion? Do you stick to your tried-and-true timbre and risk stagnating, or switch it up and risk eschewing your sonic trademark? 32 Levels suggests Clams didn't have a clear answer to either question.
He plays it safe on "Witness" and "32 Levels," returning to the hazy sound of his previous Lil B collaborations, but if they fail to capture the same sense of magic, it's not because that sound has lost its lustre; indeed, "Thanks to You" finds Clams applying the same sonic minimalism that made his name to the slinky vocals of hip-hop songwriter Sam Dew to great success, while album closer "Blast" powerfully evokes — maybe even betters — the Live.Love.A$AP instrumentals that first catapulted him to the mainstream.
The results are similarly mixed when Clams eschews his trademark sound for something different. The album's weakest — and least recognizably Clams Casino-esque — songs come in the form of the upbeat "Back to You," featuring Kelly Zutrau, and "Into the Fire" featuring Mikky Ekko, and yet, his adventurousness pays off on the following one-two, "A Breath Away" and "Ghost in a Kiss." The former, featuring Kelela, finds Clams bumping a murky beat that picks up the tempo a minute in, proving that he's got pop chops hidden away in his sonic arsenal; the latter finds Future Islands' Samuel T. Herring employing a low, whispered growl that adds a sense of foreboding to the haunted proceedings.
There's really no blueprint that Clams Casino should have followed here, nor a clear indication that he took a wrong turn at any point in crafting this record. Like any good artist, Volpe clearly followed his heart on 32 Levels, revisiting classic Clams sounds on some tracks and branching out on others, to both positive and negative effect. The result is an adventurous but inconsistent affair that suggests Clams Casino has plenty of ideas — and perhaps his masterpiece — still in him. (Columbia)