“Yes.” Cloud rap is a yes, an affirmation. To quote Squadda B and Mondre M.A.N., it’s “that shit that you can trust.” What it affirms exactly is largely down to the artist themselves — whether it’s Raider Klan’s throwback vxsthxtics, Main Attraktionz’s kush-coma hymnals, or the free-associative panegyrics of Lil B — but generally speaking, those who pertain to the Cloud Body say “yes” to anything and everything that life might throw at them. Cloud rappers ultimately aim to ascend, to rise above socioeconomic situation and land somewhere in the haze of a daydream. Nietzsche depicted his übermensch, the “overcoming-man,” as a force that defies the logic of gravity, soaring like an eagle with the clouds beneath him: similarly, SpaceGhostPurrp “always must elevate” over the haters; Lil B can literally become a/the god when he writes, sounding like the proverbial castle in the sky in doing so.
Part of cloud rap’s appeal is located in language and the respective personality of the emcee. Lyrical minutiae diffuse and dissipate into sonic vistas, as cumulic beats and synth pads interlock with words and utterances in a “celestial hand-in-hand” (to quote Collin Anderson’s awesome SGP review). And yet, some of the best cloud production is easily dislocated from a guiding voice. There are plenty of YouTube/DatPiff/whatever comments decrying the BasedGod’s irreverent bars — rest assured that we’ll never be in short supply of those — but many of them will concede that, at the very least, he has a good ear for beats. Clams Casino was a relatively early beneficiary of Lil B’s beat selection, giving him one of his most iconic tracks in “I’m God” from 2009’s 6 Kiss. If Lil B’s ascension was over the traditional confines of what made a rapper objectively “good” in the eyes of a fairly conservative listener base, Clams’s was above hip-hop altogether — hyperbolic, perhaps, but you won’t find too many other producers’ mixtapes pressed to vinyl, on a label home to the likes of Yellow Swans and Black to Comm. The Instrumentals series laid his best work bare, exuding a gauzy vibe that was no worse off for the lack of a rapper or singer to float over his productions.
Clams’s choicest beats — the “I’m God”s and “Wassup”s — evoke an airy quality, weightless in spite of layers upon layers of effects and manipulation. All too often on 32 Levels, his debut studio record, there’s a privation of said weightlessness; it’s as if some of his guests buoy him back down to earth. Clams trades in on the stripped-back, exhibitive nature of the Instrumentals tapes for a decidedly collaborative effort, enlisting the usual suspects (Lil B, A$AP Rocky) as well as some more interesting inclusions (Samuel T. Herring, Kelela) along the way. There are two distinct musical halves to the album, which can largely be reduced to rapping on the first half and singing on the latter. Consensus opinion appears to be that side two is weaker, and I’d tend to agree; the atmosphere set up by the bookending tracks sags when Clams works within the trappings of pop songwriting. “Into the Fire” in particular falls flat, wrapping up a fairly ordinary song in a watered-down version of Clams’s usually cloud sonics, and Herring pushes the EBM-ish vocal histrionics a little too far on “Ghost In A Kiss,” coming off as insincere, goofy even.
Still, respect is due to Clams for a deviation from the record of trunk-rattling swag-rap we could’ve got. Joe Newman of alt-J and Lil B somehow wind up on the same track, the former providing a pitched-up chorus on the title track; and the Vince Staples-featuring “All Nite” knocks in the same way that “Norf Norf” from Summertime 06 did, which is to say, quite unlike Clams’s typically spacious drum hits and liquefied vocals. Every internal deviation and stride into new territory is done on his terms — the clipped, skipping samples in “Back to You,” Kelela’s shape-shifting voice on “A Breath Away” — and, above all else, when the tried-and-trusted cloud rap formula is utilized, it still hits all the right spots. 32 Levels is a line in the sand, rather than a high watermark, for Clams Casino and the genre as a whole; a fertile growth outward, rather than a zeitgeist-recapturing album. If anyone can pick up the torch left here, there’ll be plenty of life in the cloud yet to come — these levels ascend.