Clams Casino is probably one of the most important producers in the development of modern-day mainstream hip-hop. Ever since he kickstarted A$AP Rocky’s career by producing the five best beats on Live.Love.A$AP, a mixtape which lived and died by its moody cloud rap production, he’s been insanely influential. While Lex Luger and DJ Mustard fell by the wayside, Clams seems to have transcended producer fads to take up a behind-the-scenes role. Take Metro Boomin, for example – his chilly take on trap takes the alien melodies that lurk in the background of Clams’s music and puts them front and centre. So, we have the guy who spawned cloud rap, changed the face of trap, and has produced on tracks featuring Vince Staples, Lil B, Mac Miller, Jhene Aiko, Foster The People (Google it. I was just as surprised as you are), ScHoolboy Q, A$AP Rocky (and Ferg!), Danny Brown, MF DOOM, The Weeknd and FKA Twigs dropping his debut album. No pressure, then.
It’s a pressure that he’s caved to a little bit. The album feels split down the middle into one half for fans of his earlier cloud rap work, and the second half is mostly comprised of forgettable pop tracks with mild R&B influences. 32 Levels disappoints in this regard – in trying to appease everyone who’s ever listened to a Clams Casino beat, he’s thrown far too many features onto the album. It gets to the point where feature fatigue sets in and 32 Levels begins to feel like a mixtape of songs by random musicians which just happen to feature Clams Casino production.
The vocals absolutely smother every single beat here, which is a damn shame. You really know exactly what you’re letting yourself in for within ten seconds of the first track – Clams’ moody, ethereal Level 1 beat is interrupted by Lil B rambling nonsense. I don’t understand why he needs to appear four times on this album. Sure, he helped Clams Casino come up by rhyming over the now-legendary I’m God instrumental, but four times? One appearance should be enough, let alone getting nearly an entire EP’s worth of Lil B-Clams Casino collaboration on Clams’ debut. I understand not wanting to let go of a day-one colleague, but his repeated appearance gives away a certain unwillingness on Clams’s part to demonstrate growth as a solo artist. But then, I’m probably just angry that of all the people Clams Casino could have given a beat as incredible as Witness to, he chose the guy who is famous solely for making Wonton Soup and having two hundred Myspace pages.
If you’re going to buy this album, a word of advice. Buy the deluxe version. I know that seems like weird advice coming from the guy who just spent the entire review criticising, attacking and generally being unhelpful about the album, but hear me out. The deluxe version of the album is the best version of the album because it includes every instrumental as a bonus track. Throwing all the instrumentals into a playlist gives you a far better Clams Casino experience than the main album. Listening to a good Clams Casino beat feels like squeezing a marshmallow in your hands and feeling the corner of a piece of obsidian push through the pink flesh. There isn’t much to it on the surface level, but it’s hard and jagged in all the right places, and just weird enough to make sure you won’t forget it. Listening to just the instrumentals takes the forgettable pop/R&B tracks in the middle and lets you experience his beats without the weight of a generic vocalist on top of them. The 32 Levels instrumentals are some of the best I’ve heard anywhere in hip-hop from the last five years, and make me wish that he’d been brave enough to just release this as an instrumental mixtape.
With this in mind, I’d like to offer two different scores for the two different versions of 32 Levels, since there’s that much difference. If you’re listening to the bland pop-cloud rap fusion album of 32 Levels, with all its Lil B features and featured singers who sound like they got lost on the way to David Guetta’s studio, then it’s probably about 2⁄5. Maybe 2.5 if you’re a generous listener. But then, if you’re listening to the spacey instrumentals that made Clams Casino’s name, then you’re listening to one of the best producers of the 2010s making the best beats of his career. It’s an easy 4⁄5.