- Michael Volpe is the rare kind of rap producer whose instrumentals are better remembered than the songs they were made for. But then he's a rare producer in general, arriving out of nowhere with an already well-defined and magnetic sound. Layering samples from all kinds of sources (choral music, new age, pop, R&B) and fastening them to sharp drums, Clams Casino productions were both mighty and mystical. They caught the ears of Lil B and A$AP Rocky, helping define the cloud rap movement. Then, with the first Instrumentals mixtape (eventually reissued by Type), Volpe's beats found their way to experimental music heads who admired their ghostly textures and sense of space. Volpe rode high on the praise, releasing a second mixtape and working with artists like The Weeknd. But by the time he got to the third Instrumentals, the formula started to wear thin. As cloud rap evaporated, Volpe's solo output dried up.
Since then, Volpe has produced for FKA twigs and Vince Staples, all while quietly toiling away at his debut album. 32 Levels finally lands with a splash, featuring high-profile guests and a major-label promotional push (quite a departure from self-released mixtapes). The album is a clever mix of old and new. With a title referencing Lil B's Clams-produced classic, "I'm God," 32 Levels looks back just enough to remind us why we fell in love with him in the first place. It features the Based God on a number of tracks, as well as an A$AP Rocky cameo.
Intro "Level" offers a tantalizing glimpse of the 2012 Clams Casino sound, but only lasts a minute before pivoting into the bland "Be Somebody." With both A$AP Rocky and Lil B on deck, "Be Somebody" could have been an anthem, but no one sounds particularly invested. Rocky's on autopilot, and Lil B can't find his flow around a beat that feels cobbled from a Clams-by-numbers kit. Volpe was once able to collapse the many layers of his sound into one shimmering surface, but on "Be Somebody," you can feel the jagged edges and sloppy stitching.
Volpe sounds more comfortable on "Witness" and the title track, where he and Lil B lock into the woozy wavering of their good ol' days. The energetic Vince Staples collaboration, "All Night," might be the best thing on the album, but, like the Summertime '06 album whose sessions it was taken from, Volpe's production is more like wallpaper than anything to pay close attention to. A Clams Casino beat used to be a hook in itself, but over the years he's dialled it back, losing track of what once made his music so engaging.
This new, pared-down approach, which also finds Volpe working his own vocals and percussion into his tapestries, is a better fit for pop and R&B. Sure enough, when Kelela appears on "A Breath Away," Volpe whips up a perfectly fluffy cloud around her, elevating their collaboration to an elegant power ballad in the vein of Jessie Ware. The same can't be said for the rest of 32 Levels' second half. Outside of a catchy bassline on "Back To You," Volpe works with insipid vocalists like Mikky Ekko, Sam Dew and Kelly Zutrau. They sound about as present as a Pro Tools session floated in from another song.
Ironically for a producer who made his name by sounding so different from mainstream hip-hop, Volpe falls victim to the same fate that swallows many major-label rap debuts: his brilliant personality is drowned out by radio-safe production and ill-advised guest appearances. One of the most astounding things about early Clams Casino was its offbeat flair—for instance, his choice to sample Imogen Heap on "I'm God" and Enya on "Palace." But there's little evidence of that here, as Volpe tepidly tries new ideas or fails to conjure the magic of his old productions.
As disappointing as it might be, 32 Levels only has a few real clunkers (like "Ghost In A Kiss," which features a cringey, half-sung vocal from Future Islands' Samuel T. Herring). The album ends with a strong instrumental, "Blast," though by then it's too little too late. What's most disheartening about 32 Levels is how it floats by anonymously for 37 wishy-washy minutes, which is especially hard to take from a producer whose tracks used to command your attention.
01. Level 1
02. Be Somebody (feat. A$AP Rocky & Lil B)
03. All Nite (feat. Vince Staples)
04. Witness (feat. Lil B)
06. 32 Levels (feat. Lil B & Joe Newman of Alt-J)
07. Thanks To You (feat. Sam Dew)
08. Back To You (feat. Kelly Zutrau of Wet)
09. Into The Fire (feat. Mikky Ekko)
10. A Breath Away (feat. Kelela)
11. Ghost In A Kiss (feat. Samuel T Herring of Future Islands)