Instrumental Mixtape 2 Mixtape
By Matt Main | 26 July 2012
A part of me feels bad for how I relate to Clams Casino’s second instrumental mixtape. Let’s be real: this release consists of some of the best beats of the year (okay, last year, most of them) and underlines the peerlessness of Clams’ hazy, sonorous craft; it clarifies his prolific intent into a streamlined compilation, in much the same way as Instrumental Mixtape (2011) did before it. These beats are so singular that it’s often more rewarding to try and describe his music through abstract similes rather than literal comparison—you could easily persuade me that Clams Casino is what a smoke machine sounds like in an empty, echoey room. But for all the wondrous images that his music conjures up, this is not how I listen to Mike Volpe’s Instrumental Mixtape 2. At best, when I press play on first track “Palace,” I expect the drawl of A$AP Rocky to slouch over the beat. At worst (read: often alone, and not entirely sober) these tracks become karaoke versions of rap songs I dutifully recite every word to.
Isn’t this the eternal producers’ paradox? Acclaim comes from sending your beats to rappers who will gain them the most exposure, but this often also proves to be their limiting factor; bound by the context of reception, our natural association of the beat is typically with its place in the song. I’m sure this is in part financially necessitated—it’s easier for Volpe to pay the bills (some bills?) by offering exclusive shit to rappers like A$AP Rocky rather than posting them on Twitter for followers to digest free of charge. But isn’t it slightly disheartening that this can lead to some of the best artistry in hip-hop right now being received foremost as a component of a bigger thing, the edited rap product?
Volpe spoke openly about some of his frustrations with selling his craft in an interview with Pitchfork last year, and it’s enlightening that he actually bothers to collect his widespread tracks and release them as mixtapes. One can only conclude that he believes they warrant a secondary way for us to approach them, or that at the very least he’s dissatisfied with the work some have done with his tracks. You could hardly blame him for thinking so of Mac Miller’s borderline-blasphemous attempts sat atop “One Last Thing,” a particularly gorgeous track in which Clams’ signature haze billows around a serene, whale song melody. Maybe Mac Miller is an easy target, but artists like the Weeknd shouldn’t be. The inclusion of the original mix of “The Fall” seems like a pointed gesture when you consider how different—and much improved—this track is to what ended up constituting the beat on Echoes of Silence (2011).
But if, as in the Weeknd’s case, artists feel they can modify the work of their producers to a radical extent, is it ever likely that people like Clams Casino can realize their aspirations of releasing their music as inherently valuable? The solution of Flying Lotus and other Brainfeeder producers is to create beats which leave no space for rappers to fill with their rhymes, forcing their work to be acknowledged as songs in their own right. Clams has a similar approach, as the down times and silences in tracks like “Bass” aren’t shaped for a particularly powerful punchline, but because they suit the track’s pacing, and in this specific example reinforce precisely what a banger “Bass” is. A lot of Clams Casino’s samples are warped or stretched out female vocals, submerged beyond identification; the song as part of the beat, and not the other way around.
Clams Casino is the perfect rebuttal of our conception of a beat functioning simply as a foundation for the rapper to work on, and Instrumental Mixtape 2 his best yet articulation of this defiance. He’s interesting specifically because he doesn’t quite match Brainfeeder in eschewing the need for a rap artist altogether, whatever his reservations may be about them; he deliberately traverses the gap between the rap artist and the producer with these releases. In this framework, nobody does it better—you probably heard plenty about his part on “Palace,” “Leaf,” etc. in A$AP Rocky reviews last year but it really is worth labouring how fantastic these tracks are: “Palace” with it’s triumphant, slow-motion head nodding grandeur; “Leaf”‘s fucking ethereal woodwind, the only thing able to pierce the murky pollution.
When Volpe releases these compilations after their initial use, we will inevitably always have the projections of the rapper laden upon us in our listening. He knows this, and in some ways encourages it. The tracks are all given to us on Instrumental Mixtape 2 with the name, and thus the filter, attributed to them by whoever originally put their flow on the top. But in not trying to escape this, Clams Casino allows us to use our associations to acknowledge the evolving dynamic between producer and artist. He causes us to question both our appreciation of the producer’s work within a rap context, and also the quality of this production on its own terms. And sometimes these associations even allow us to best articulate our celebration of his work—I mean, nothing sums this Clams Casino mixtape up better than the A$AP Rocky refrain that isn’t even on here: “God damn, how real is this?”