“Leave it up to Clams / He got us,” Lil B intones at the beginning of Clams Casino’s full-length major-label debut, the first genuine album from cultishly revered producer Mike Volpe. It’s a statement that speaks not only to Lil B’s trust that Volpe will come through—as he has on all his best tracks—but to his gratitude at finding someone who understood his misfit approach, who took Lil B’s bizarre meme-riffs and flat affect and surrounded them with ethereal, ambient bliss, together creating the spacey “based world” of cloud rap. Volpe—a physical therapy student who recorded his spectral soundscapes as a hobby, then sent them to Lil B and other rappers unsolicited—recognized these kindred spirits on the genre fringes. And after staking out his peculiarly haunted corner of hip-hop and electronic music with his Rainforest EP and a trilogy of acclaimed Instrumentals self-releases, those allies now come to repay the favor on 32 Levels, an album that aims to officially enshrine Clams Casino as one of the most iconoclastic producers in the business, even among those who didn’t “get” it the first time.
As it’s both dominated and defined by those guest voices, 32 Levels is more of a mixtape of Volpe’s contacts folder than a concise artistic statement—and as such, it’s not the most complete picture of his work, particularly for beginners. But it does trace a certain chronological evolution of Clams’ career, beginning with a first half dominated by the sort of blown-out, bottom-heavy rap tracks that first got Volpe attention, with Lil B appearing on four songs—recorded, for the first time, in each other’s company, after years spent trading ideas over the internet. Most notable of these is the stark, glowering “Be Somebody,” a duet that finds Lil B trading some of his most linear rhymes to date with fellow Clams vet ASAP Rocky. As the two prowl confidently over horror soundtrack drones and one of Volpe’s disembodied, beautifully anguished vocal hooks—resembling the ghostly transmission of some long-forgotten new wave ballad bleeding between stations—the song nails that sweet spot between mesmerizing and menacing where Clams Casino lives.
Also for the first time, here that sound is totally organic. Forgoing his early practices of sampling songs by searching random words on LimeWire, Volpe spent the past several years recording almost all of those beats and bricolage himself. There’s also a stronger sense of Volpe tailoring his material specifically for who’s rapping over it. The bleak, brittle drumbeats, eerie birdsong, and metallic synth washes of “All Nite,” for example, are as perfectly matched to Vince Staples’ adenoidal snarl as they were on previous collaborations like last year’s “Norf Norf,” and they combine for one of the most galvanizing songs either artist has delivered yet. And it’s hard to imagine anyone else making Lil B’s blunt, idiot savant raps like, “Shout out to France, shout out to Japan / Everywhere I go, man, they do the rain dance” sound as deeply X-Files-mysterious as Volpe does on the eerie, sizzling “Witness.”
But we already knew Clams Casino could do all that. It’s in the back half of 32 Levels, where Volpe drops rap entirely to pair off with singers, that he pushes himself in less familiar directions—to outcomes both revelatory and slightly banal. Sam Dew’s honeyed falsetto turn on “Thanks To You” is the most instantly grabby of these, recalling Volpe’s warped R&B remixes for The Weeknd and Blood Orange. “A Breath Away” pairs rising avant-R&B singer Kelela’s sensuous voice with hypnotic tribal rhythms, soaring synths, and distant screams for a collaboration both would do well to repeat.
In between these highs, however, “Back To You” is merely fine, the breathy-beautiful vocal melody from Wet singer Kelly Zutrau turning a busily fascinating bed of gamelans and U.K. garage beats into blasé, generic radio pop. And Mikky Ekko’s “Into The Fire” tips fully over into unfortunate schmaltz, resembling the sort of overwrought ballad buried in the credits of some ’80s romantic comedy. It’s in these moments that Volpe’s fascinating atmospheres are less complemented by his collaborators than diluted—and this yielding to other voices, even at the expense of compromising his own, is what makes 32 Levels overall a less satisfying showcase for his talents than his standalone work.
Still, these brief valleys of tepidness are quickly erased by “Ghost In A Kiss,” with Future Islands frontman Samuel T. Herring burrowing deep into the crypt of his baritone, pitched somewhere between Peter Murphy and Leonard Cohen, for a gothic rumble that’s all pensive cabaret piano and slow-rolling smoke. It’s a moment unlike anything else Clams Casino has done before, and a realization of all that 32 Levels aspires to in demonstrating the still-untapped depths of his versatility. Hopefully it’s a precursor to even more unexpected indie-rock team-ups. (Someone should really get him in a room with somebody like Beach House’s Victoria Legrand.)
And yet, the true pinnacle of 32 Levels comes in the final victory lap of “Blast,” a track that finds Volpe comfortably back inside the realm of hazy, heavenly electronics, with boom-bap beats and sampled choral gasps stair-stepping to a triumphant crescendo. Like the similarly too-brief, vocal-less “Skull,” it will serve as an immediate invitation for fans to dive deep into the instrumental versions (packaged here as a separate disc), which continue to be where Volpe shines brightest. And for everyone else, if they don’t “get” Clams Casino after all this, it’s still worth giving those a shot—or any of his previous releases—to hear what all the fuss is really about.