The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll came out last week, crowning Tune-Yards’ “whokill” as the Album of the Year. If you’d read my Top 10 on Reverb (or my P & J ballot), you’d know I think it a great album, too. And even though I didn’t find it to be the very best, I’m not about to disparage the Dean of American Rock Polls, which was founded by the Dean of American Rock Critics (Robert Christgau). (Chuck Klosterman did just that this week in an asinine column where he admits that he “barely listened” to the record before he clumsily begins to attack it and prognosticate upon the inevitable demise of her critical adoration. Hey, Chuck: It turns out plenty of people had heard of Merrill Garbus before this year. Including me.)
So, instead of giving a dude who thinks he has the only original opinions in the history of the world on “Saved by the Bell” more time than he merits, I move on. Here’s why I think Clams Casino made the best record of 2011. I, unlike Chuck, actually listened to the music a few times before I formed the following opinion. It’s sort of what is minimally expected of those who offer criticisms.
On the opening track of A$AP Rocky’s debut mixtape, he opens by rapping, “How real is this? / I know y’all niggas be feelin’ this.” The song, “Palace,” was produced by Clams Casino and if Rocky was assigning a level of excitement to the beat on the tune, he would be dead on.
Clams Casino was born Mike Volpe and is a 23-year-old physical therapy student in addition to being one of the most exciting hip-hop producers on the planet. The New Jerseyan stormed onto the hip-hop scene in 2009 after he laid down the track for Lil B’s oh-so-humbly-entitled “I’m God.” This year, he released two records as Clams, an “Instrumental Mixtape” and the “Rainforest EP.” Both are stellar, but the mixtape is particularly intriguing, groovy and grabbing. And it contains almost no words.
2011 wasn’t exactly a banner year for hip-hop, the biggest release in the genre from Kanye West and Jay-Z unloaded as an overwrought mess. Odd Future fizzled, Shabazz Palaces reminded us of how much we missed the innovative sparks of the ‘90s and Drake, the Weeknd and Frank Ocean plunged the R&B depths for signs of rhythmic life. They all signaled something of a paradigm shift this year away from the proper, label-readied hip-hop album. It was only exacerbated by the growing importance and liveliness of the mixtape, exemplified by Das Racist’s stumble on its first “real” release. The Brooklyn troupe’s giveaway opuses from last year seem eons ago.
But nothing rendered the standard-bearer, MC-on-the-mic LP more useless than Clams Casino. (A potent irony, perhaps, because Volpe makes money from them, even if he still considers his beat-making a hobby.) The instrumentals released this year are lush, glazing and genre-dodging. They combine some menagerie of trip-hop, dubstep and Four Tet-level folktronica. But, Volpe, who has played the drums since he was six, makes them all startlingly beat-centric. It’s hip-hop without the rapper.
“Motivation” opens the tape with wordless swaggers: electronic rimshots subbing for Jay-Z, a pensive Native American-like chant lending weight. The record keeps spinning, completely in control, with foggy murmurs throughout, penetrating beats always clipping into a backbone. Bjork shows up, late, on “Illest Alive,” which contains a sample from her song, “Bachelorette.” You can make out her chopped-up, singing, “You will go / Like a killer,” but the words never become the crux of the song; they’re on repeat as another beat. The same goes for Janelle Monae on “Cold War,” her voice a part of the whole trajectory. If you listen to Lil B’s version of the tune, his messy delivery is satisfying for sure; the verses are enjoyable. But the song is, quite simply, better without him — or any rapper or singer — on top of it. Frank Sinatra couldn’t improve it; it’s the best it will ever be with just the fingerprints of Clams Casino.
In the middle of the mixtape lies “I’m Official,” which was provided to Squadda B. Standing alone—without Squadda B in the way, really—you can make out the blurry beauty that rises up in angelic ‘ahs.’ It’s an exemplary track from a record that’s up there with J Dilla’s instrumental efforts. It transcends the label of “hip-hop producer.” Words be damned, Clams Casino is producing his own hip-hop. Officially.