Monday, July 18, 2016

Clams Casino - 32 Levels Review

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 in recognizable form, 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 A$AP 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 overly organic, ethereal, and hazy production, the New Jersey beatsmith can really be categorized as the genre's key inventor. Many recognize his worth, the litany of production work ranging from Danny Brown to FKA Twigs to Foster The People succinctly proves that. All this though, without a debut album, and no official release since 2013's Instrumentals 3. Now that his name has begun to dim to the shadow's under artist's he works with, Casino is ready to grab ahold of the attention he once fostered. 32 Levels is a kind reminder to a critical living legend, but also a disappointing retreat for someone whose always been ahead of the game.

There was no denying that when Lil B released 17 mixtapes in 2012, including one that surpassed 800 songs, he was going to burn out soon, both from fan exhaustion and his own. Midway through 2016 and we haven't seen him appear in project form once. With Hip-Hop's ever-changing, and ever-fluctuating, landscape that was expected. What was also expected was Casino's inclusion of him on his debut LP, a direct 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 aging, bumbling Internet star who gave way to his fame and endure torment from obsessed fans, or pepper him in and anticipate the quality dipping. Appearing four times here (including being uncredited on opener 'Level 1'), it's no surprise that when the California emcee appears, the value tumbles. The one saving grace, 'Be Somebody,' largely due to Casino's haunting beat and a satisfying verse from flow-savant A$AP Rocky. Much like his insult-on-record 'I'm God,' Lil B has never competed with his production, a worrisome highlight for a third of 32 Levels.

Casino's direction here is also a worry spot, as littering the track list are other people's names, making this a decisively non-instrumental album, unlike his other works. On top of that, he's decided to pepper in a fluid mix of Hip-Hop, R&B, Pop, and Indie artists, following a similar path to Flume, Baauer, Kaytranada, BBNG, and more. For someone whose sounds have always been a trademark, a unique approach to beat-making that 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 appeal. 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 proper form has me seeing its clear merits, Kelela's performance absolutely divine across Casino's sweeping chorus body blows.

With that song and others, there's surprisingly a fair amount of Pop appeal here. Another unfortunate side of Casino wanting to expand his tastes, tracks like 'Thanks To You' and 'Into The Fire' sound virtually nothing like Cloud Rap, his origins. These past few years have proved that he can work under different limitations though, and a few of those on 32 Levels he actually gets to flourish. 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 genre-spanning 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. For all the comic after effects brought on by Herring's outrageously deep voice, Casino is able to make the song work in some respects thanks to a brooding beat that veers into the atmospherics of Industrial. However, after all the flair and panache Casino drips through 32 Levels with his diverse cast of characters, guess what's likely the best song here? That's right, 'Blast.' A two-minute closer that enters the classic Clams Casino realm, pushing his identifiable 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've been a memorable project, leaving 32 Levels with a storage of untapped potential, only a few beacons shining their fullest light. 

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