When Clams Casino released his first Instrumentals mixtape just over a year ago, he was living off the rap grid, studying to be a physical therapist at home in New Jersey and putting together head-blown rap beats in his spare time, entirely as a hobby. He’d supplied a bunch of instrumentals to Lil B, and he’d randomly placed a few beats on a Soulja Boy mixtape or two, but he wasn’t making any money for his work, and he didn’t particularly expect to. When my friend Ryan Dombal interviewed him for Pitchfork around that time, he said that he’d never met Lil B, his closest collaborator. He’d bought a ticket for one of B’s New York shows, but he’d left early because the show was sold out and his friends couldn’t get it. (Ryan said something like: “Dude, I think you probably could’ve gotten in for free.”) The tracks on that first Instrumentals tape had mostly already lived as rap songs, but for most of us, they weren’t especially familiar rap songs; we hadn’t fully internalized those random Lil B mixtape tracks. And now that Clams has gotten around to releasing his second Instrumentals tape, his circumstances couldn’t be more different, even if his music relies on the same feelings and sensations.
Over the past 15 or 16 months, the music that Clams was making at home in New Jersey has become a sort of aesthetic movement, one that’s come to dominate certain corners of the instrumental rap landscape. His style is all hazy, swoony gloop. His drums hit hard sometimes, but he’s not exactly working in the Pete Rock/DJ Premier tradition — or, if he is, he’s pushing the trippier elements of that sound way past their logical extreme. Samples burble up from the deep and then sniff themselves out; it’s almost like those pieces of vocal are in the process of drowning. The bass-pulses are faraway echoes. His sound is the rap beat as haunted-house new-age, and it’s a big part of the reason why a space-cadet rapper as disconnected and undisciplined as Lil B can sometimes sound close to brilliant. In a way, his sound has as much to do with the Orb or early Aphex Twin as it does with DJ Shadow or the Heatmakerz, perhaps accidentally. And hearing a collection of Clams beats with no rappers only amplifies those feelings. Without those voices, his music becomes pure longing drift. It’s often just beautiful.
But now there’s a familiarity to Clams, and the tracks he’s chosen for Instrumentals 2 are among his best-known. The first track on Instrumentals 2 is ASAP Rocky’s “Palace,” which was also the first track on LIVELOVEA$AP, one of the past year’s best-known and most important mixtapes. At first, it’s hard to focus on the instrumental itself, since that instrumental now has its own associations; I can’t hear that opening cymbal-smash and those sampled choral vocals without mentally filling in Rocky’s absent introduction (“Unh, goddam, how real is this”). The songs that appear in instrumental form on Instrumentals 2 are, for the most part, big songs — tracks that Clams made for Rocky or the Weeknd, or his remixes for Lana Del Rey and Washed Out (now stripped of all traces of the original tracks). He’s included his instrumental for the best song that Lil B has ever recorded (“I’m God”) and the most instantly-recognizable beat he’s made for B (“Unchain Me,” which prominently samples the “thou shalt not kill” song from The Lost Boys). Clams hasn’t exactly had a pop breakthrough, but there’s a beat here from an honest-to-god #1-on-Billboard album: Mac Miller’s “One Last Thing,” now blessedly free of Mac Miller. When most of these beats don’t exist in a vacuum, when they’ve basically already had a life as underground hits, it’s a bit harder to give yourself completely over to the ebb and flow of the mixtape. It’s distracting.
But then, that distraction-level is also a powerful reminder of how far Clams has come in a short time. The sound he helped to pioneer, the one that’s come to be known as “cloud-rap,” has taken on a life of its own, and Clams has taken his rightful place at its forefront. On some level, he’s still just some relatively anonymous guy making rich-in-feeling tracks on his computer in his basement, but now those tracks have proved durable enough to stand on their own, as actual songs. And after a few spins, Instrumentals 2 starts to lose the displacing weirdness of deja vu and to play on its own. Instrumentals 2 is still brand-new, so it’s only starting to lose those associations for me. But the great thing about Clams’ sound is that it can completely fill up a room and transform whatever mundane activity you’re engaged in into something grandly, romantically dark. It’s perfect rainy-day background music, and it’s strange and fascinating to consider the idea that rainy-day background music is now a huge part of underground rap. If the first Instrumentals tape marked the moment where Clams announced his arrival, this new one — the updated resume — is the one where he forces us to come to grips with the strange and improbable form of dominance he’s achieved.
Download Instrumentals 2 for free here.