Cloud rap didn’t disappear so much as it evaporated. While the early 2010s made it seem like we might be seeing a hip-hop climate where everything is smeared in a lo-fi haze like so many Instagram filters, clarity and pop appeal still reigned supreme. But it also arguably helped to pave the way for popular artists bringing trippier sounds into their mix. Hell, A$AP Rocky signed a $3 million deal on the strength of one particularly fogged-up mixtape.
And although New Jersey beatsmith Mike Volpe, a.k.a. Clams Casino, wasn’t behind all of the songs on “Live. Love. A$AP,” it’s no coincidence that many of the best tracks (“Palace,” “Bass”) are Clams productions. So great was Clams at mixing the beautiful with the surreal that you could find yourself having an out-of-body experience to a Lil B song with the line, “Bruh think I’m gay cause I’m grindin’ in my tiny pants.”
But the latter half of the decade was nowhere as successful for Clams as the first half. Debut album 32 Levels felt hollow, with neither Clams nor his guests bringing the best out in each other. The entirely instrumental Moon Trip Radio revived the atmosphere some, but not with nearly the amount of potency as his best work. As a forgery by another artist, it might impress. As a Clams Casino original not so much.
So, if you’ve been underwhelmed by the last five or so years of Clams Casino, Winter Flower, his new mini-album might further your disappointment or just be enjoyed as a pleasant little beat tape from a producer who once made you feel like your headphones were turning inside out. It’s not that Clams has lost his way so much as he’s walking around in circles, repeatedly putting his footprints over ground he’s already trod over.
His skills as a producer are not in question, but his ability to get out of his comfort zone might be. The songs on Winter Flower are familiar bedfellows, covered in everything necessary to elicit descriptions like “reflective” and “hypnotic.” It seems like the perfect project for falling asleep to, at least until you experience a hypnic jerk to the moaning sounds of “Tunnel Speed.” But in a typical listening session, “Tunnel Speed” and other tracks like it feel like competent but unremarkable sound exercises, the kinds of things uploaded to YouTube as “(Clams Casino-Type Beat)” Winter Flower has a very aquatic influence, with sounds of waves heard on opening two-parter “Water Theme,” and could make for a nice soundtrack to an evening beach walk. But it lacks one key attribute of the ocean: depth.
Of course, it’s hard to achieve depth when you’re working at such a clipped pace. Most tracks hover a little over the two-minute mark before ending abruptly or occasionally, bleeding into the next track. But there’s also hardly any track that concludes before reaching its full potential. The boom-bappish “Misty” gets trapped in a cycle of loops that feel warmed over from Instrumentals 1 through 3. In fact, many of the better moments here appear recycled from past projects, like how “Water Theme 2,” aims to wash over the listener through sheer ethereality like “All I Need” but without anywhere near the same immersive quality.
And if Winter Flower was focused solely on creating atmosphere, it could still impress. But the production decisions are occasionally puzzling, namely the volume of the percussion, often mixed well above everything else to the point that a pensive track like “Pine” is spoiled by aggressive handclaps. Some tracks, like “Pine” and the closing title track, are enlivened by embellishments like plucked strings and piano. But the takeaway doesn’t rise above “that’s nice.”
At 16 minutes, Winter Flower is hardly a chore to get through, but there are no “Realist Alive” or “I’m God” moments, where you’re just mesmerized by what one producer has done with one track, again and again. There was a time when Clams Casino’s production was a realm as intoxicating as it was foreboding. On Winter Flower, it feels like he’s remembered the vibe but has forgotten the vibrancy.