When the name Clams Casino began to circulate widely among music aficionados in the early 2010s, it seemed that the producer represented something more significant than the sum of the tracks he laid down for various underground rappers to plow over. Part of this uncanny sense could be ascribed to anonymity. Vaguely opulent moniker aside, Clams Casino existed as little more than a Myspace account and email address. No one in music knew the beatmaker personally. He was a digital wraith, and the less one knew, the more one could speculate. But there was something in his music as well. With their digitized and wraithlike ambient synths in the higher frequencies, anchored by melancholic and foreboding bass, the beats seemed loaded with the weight of meanings yet to be articulated.
Compared to the vast majority of rap production, Clams's instrumentals were uncommonly full and moving. Normally, producers would clear out the mid-range frequencies of instrumentals to make space for spoken verses to be added later; challenging rappers in a domain long conceded to them without issue, Clams crammed those frequencies with vocal samples, demanding, in effect, that the recording artist match or exceed their spirit. The vocal samples put to work by Clams were rarely simple reproductions, pruned from existing tracks but preserved in a recognizably intact state in their new setting: Clams had stressed, sliced, splintered, and otherwise modified his original samples until they sang in an unprecedented fashion. At their frequent best, Clams Casino tracks sounded entirely self-sufficient: They required no words to feel complete. Unlike most rap instrumentals, the presence of a human voice and human language often seemed to diminish their own.
The generally acknowledged showcase for Clams's technique was the instrumental for Lil B's 2010 track "I'm God": Though sampling English singer Imogen Heap's voice from her 2005 song "Just for Now" intact in its overture, during the verses and hooks Heap's high, rich lyrics have been shattered into their constituent phonemes and rearranged into original melodies. The end result is an endlessly cresting wave of angelic sound that arches over Lil B's slapdash declarations of his own divine excellence more than it accompanies or amplifies them. For a careful observer, it was clear that not only could Clams Casino be more than a rap producer, symbiotically bonded to rappers in a union where he served as the lesser half — he actively wanted to be more. Released between 2011 and 2013, his Rainforest EP and immensely influential trio of Instrumentals mixtapes quietly staked a claim for consideration as a composer, an artist for whom deference to other musicians was an option instead of an obligation.
Clams was not the only producer tending toward declaring independence. Since the recording industry clamped down on free-for-all sampling in the early '90s, rising producers, lacking an industry budget, have been driven to compose original music. Furthermore, as the roster of rap music tropes gradually filled out and the roster of aspiring rappers exploded, it became harder and harder for a rapper to stand out at the level of content. More and more, a new rapper's rise, or an established rapper's continued relevance, relied on his discovery of a producer with a new sound, and producers could convert this increasing reliance into gains in influence and status. In this, as in much else, Kanye West led the way. Clams resembled Kanye neither temperamentally nor racially: Behind the quasi-glamorous pseudonym, he turned out to be Michael Volpe, an unassuming Italian-American in his early 20s who lived in New Jersey and worked at a hospital, constructing beats in his spare time.
But despite his recessive character, Volpe's release of his own collections implied his impatience with rappers (who often sit on beats for months or years) and his desire to stand out as an artist, though not as a celebrity. Despite and even because of his disinterest in the spotlight, he became legendary and much sought after. For some time he had every right to be considered the hottest producer in rap music. Along with helping Lil B to be taken seriously, the freshness of his sound was instrumental in fueling A$AP Rocky's leap into the stratosphere: Rocky's breakout mixtape Live.Love.A$AP featured a veritable harem of Clams's finest beats: "Palace," "Bass," "Wassup," "Leaf," "Demons." More recently, several of the best tracks from Vince Staples's major label debut Summertime '06 last year ("Norf Norf," "Summertime," "Surf") are Clams productions.
It's not surprising, then, that Lil B, Rocky, and Vince all make appearances on Clams's own major label debut. During the first half of the 12 tracks — 24 really, but we'll come to that — on 32 Levels (Columbia), Lil B appears five times, with Rocky and Vince each contributing verses once. All three appear in top form. The Based God has dispensed with the pretense of not knowing how to rap, delivering an array of sharp, sometimes antagonistic, often globally oriented bars ("Guns from Russia, house in Sweden / No one believes me, the world thinks I'm evil") while retaining his trademark positivity; Rocky joins him in celebration, stylishly and swiftly weaving through his usual narrative of success against alternations of elephantine horns and longing synths on "Be Somebody"; Vince delivers a stark and merciless rendition of gang life on "All Nite," a clipped and rushing track that could easily double as the intermission, or missing heart, of Summertime '06. Each rapper faithfully resonates with the aspects of Clams's sound that best suits them, be it the lofty luminosity of the vocal samples, the ominous soulfulness of the low end, or the well-paced precision with which he coordinates the two.
If the first half of 32 Levels displays both rappers and producer in familiar peak condition, the second half, devoted to singers, is something of an exercise in eccentricity and experiment, as the producer tests out his sonic chemistry against melodious, articulate voices. Of the five singers featured, the women fare noticeably better than the men — ethereal yet tense, their voices swim above Clams's beats without coming unmoored from them. Wet's Kelly Zutrau, on "Back to You," spins out a brisk tale of male betrayal redeemed by happy memories; the rising Ethiopian-American avant-R&B artist Kelela tells a similar story on "A Breath Away," but envisions joy in the future instead of the past. The male voices, on the other hand, fail to find a strong bond with the instrumentals. The torsions of Sam Dew, the slickness of Mikky Ekko, the dramatics of Samuel T. Herring — despite their efforts, nothing quite sticks. They come off as incidental, reductive, or redundant in relation to the production, and, as often is the case with Clams, the suspicion rises that his instrumentals would be better received in their pure form.
This suspicion is thoroughly confirmed on the deluxe edition of 32 Levels, which features, after the original 12 tracks, their instrumentals. Freed of featured voices, an album which seemed like little more than an awkward compilation suddenly comes into focus as a masterfully coherent whole. It's no exaggeration to state that the bonus tracks comprise the authentic album, next to which the original tracks seem like appetizers at best. The "real" 32 Levels confirms the intuition, latent in Clams's earlier collections, that his music is too good for words, and in doing so, it opens a chance to speculate on the source of its quality.
It's striking how so much of the language that applies to Clams's sound — a looming, pregnant, foreboding, potential, threatening, progressive paradise — clusters around the notion of the future. All music is temporal and lives, to some extent, in the time to come, but Clams's music emphasizes its futurity so much that it always seems ahead of itself. It earns the title futuristic not just because it was synthetically created with digital equipment, but because its unsettled yet definitively advancing qualities correspond to the future's own indeterminate but nonetheless directional nature. Clams and his copycats were gathered, not unhelpfully, under the title of "cloud rap," but the essential difference is that while his imitators tend to hover in space, Clams elaborates a cloud of possibilities. Words necessarily fail his music. Spelling out meanings to the exclusion of most others, they confirm what only exists potentially. There's no such thing as a frozen future (fittingly, the temperature of Clams tracks, though always cool, is never icy).
Still, there are a few things to be said with certainty about the coming world that Clams Casino projects in his music. It's orderly, for one. Science, art, and nature operate in such harmony that it no longer makes sense to consider them separately. Though unhappiness no longer runs wild, it hasn't been abolished: Just like joy, it's cultivated and harvested as a precious crop. Everything is lit, bright and glowing with intelligence. The only question is where the people have gone. Their former voices have been spliced into angels, but the words that make them who they are are nowhere to be found. Perhaps another reason the sadness is so pervasive in Clams's futuristic vision is because the future itself is sad: Great composer aside, it knows that human beings aren't good enough to get there.