Review: Clams Casino, 32 Levels

32 Levels is a kind reminder of what Clams Casino can do, but also a disappointing retreat from someone who has always been ahead of the game
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While it's a non-official starting point, many attribute Lil B as being the originator of cloud rap. In the few years it's existed, the sub-genre has taken on many forms, forever moving away from the Based God's off-kilter rhyming styles and poor, but likable flows. Only the young and malleable impersonator Yung Lean comes close. However, the real jumping off point for the genre came when weed-infused Harlem by way of Houston rapper ASAP Rocky drenched his debut mixtape in it. The two things Rocky and Lil B have in common? Clams Casino. And being that the genre is built around ethereal, and hazy production, the New Jersey beatsmith can really be called the genre’s key inventor. Many recognize his talent, a series of production work ranging from Danny Brown to FKA Twigs to Foster The People proves that. All this though, without a debut album, and no official release since 2013's Instrumentals 3. Now that his star has begun to dim under the shadow of artists he works with, Casino is ready to grab ahold of the attention he once fostered. 32 Levels is a kind reminder of what the producer can do, but also a disappointing retreat from someone who has always been ahead of the game.

There was little doubt that when Lil B released 17 mixtapes in 2012, including one that hit 800 songs, he was going to burn out soon, both from fan exhaustion and his own. Midway through 2016 and we haven't seen an LP-length project from him once. With hip-hop's ever-fluctuating landscape that was expected. What was also expected was Casino's inclusion of Lil B on his debut album, an ode to someone who almost single-handedly put the producer on the map. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the vastly more talented Casino found himself in a lose-lose situation. Choose to ignore the bumbling internet star who gave way to his career and endure torment from obsessive fans, or pepper him in and anticipate a dip in quality. Appearing four times here (including being uncredited on opener “Level 1”), it's no surprise that when the California emcee appears, the music is less compelling. The one saving grace is “Be Somebody”, largely due to Casino's haunting beat and a satisfying verse from flow-savant ASAP Rocky. Much like his insult-on-record “I'm God”, Lil B has never competed with Casino’s production, a worrisome highlight for a third of 32 Levels.

Casino's direction here is just as worrying. He litters the tracklist with other people's names, making 32 Levels a decisively non-instrumental album, unlike his other works. On top of that, he's decided to sprinkle in a mix of hip-hop, r&b, pop, and indie artists, following in the footsteps of Flume, Baauer, Kaytranada, Badbadnotgood, and others. For someone whose unique approach to beat-making made him a key figure, it’s sad to see him resort to relying on others and following trends. Thankfully, while this does make the album less cohesive, some of the executions are rather nice. “All Nite” sees the young and boisterous Vince Staples hopping freely over a beat that perfectly melds Casino's rich sources with that of Staples' West Coast swagger. Thanks to the Long Beach native's flow, both artists act effortlessly here. And while I was initially left unmoved by “A Breath Away”, a second glance in context has revealed its merits. Kelela's performance is absolutely divine across Casino's sweeping body blows.

With that song and others, there's surprisingly a fair amount of crossover appeal here. An unfortunate side of Casino wanting to expand his tastes, tracks like “Thanks To You” and “Into The Fire” sound virtually nothing like his cloud rap origins. These past few years have proved that he can work under different limitations though. The Kelly Zutrau-assisted “Back To You” is a sprightly, graceful tune that bounces off numerous melodies, allowing Zutrau to showcase a unique perspective shift in the verses while returning to a more pop-oriented chorus. And while “Into The Fire” with Mikky Ekko is fairly generic, almost too generic, I could easily see this landing on radio stations if the lead singer were more famous. Just like other genre-hopping DJ's before him, Casino has used 32 Levels as a showcase to his overall talents more than an actual album that follows a set theme. One minute you're listening to Lil B ramble non-sequiturs about self-improvement, the next you're witnessing Sam Herring (of Future Islands fame) sing as if possessed by his on-air personality during his David Letterman performance before slowly turning into the Anti-Christ. (Seriously, listen to “Ghost In A Kiss” and you'll know exactly what I mean.)

After all the flair and panache of Casino’s diverse cast of guests, the sole instrumental track, “Blast”, might just be the best song on here. A two-minute closer that enters the classic Clams Casino realm, pushing his brand of cloud rap straight into the future, with striking bass blasts looming behind chopped vocal samples and gleaming synths. It's prime material and bittersweet, as its placement as the last breath on 32 Levels only aims to remind you what the album could've been had Casino not followed the path of others. We're in an age where producers are proving more what they can do with others and less what they can do by themselves. The genre-spanning approach dilutes what could have been a memorable project, leaving 32 Levels with a storage of untapped potential and only a few beacons shining their fullest light. C PLUS 

Read more of Brian’s writing at his blog, Dozens of Donuts.