For whom does the beat album beat? Aspiring rappers looking for cheap rhythms? Established rappers on the market for underground talent? Homegrown beatmeisters looking for inspiration? Prophetic heads looking to call a career early?
Beat albums have always seemed to me to be more like catalogs hocking hip hop commodities than artistic documents. Of course, plenty of artists transcend this commodified aspect of the business: DJ Shadow, Madlib, J Dilla, Oh No, Pete Rock. But look closely at that list: each of these artists fundamentally changed the way that a supportive beat could sound and what could be made with found sounds. All great producers are all revolutionaries: Shadow is a crate-digging intellectual, Madlib is a postmodern soul man, RZA is a hard-edged urban Morricone, Dr. Dre is a gangsta funkenstein. It’s not hard to imagine Clams Casino’s debut beat record, Instrumental, joining the ranks of Endtroducing… and Donuts as a seminal record that broadened the palette of popular music because he brings something that is conspicuously absent from hip hop history: unabashed beatuy.
Of course, we all buy into the Keatsian definition of beauty as truth. And in this respect, RZA’s gritty productions are beautiful, DJ Shadow’s kaleidoscopic breakbeats are beautiful. Even Rubin’s thunderous rock-infused beats are beautiful. But Clams Casino’s fragile instrumentals are conventionally beautiful; they’re unashamedly pretty. While it’s not included on the album, Casino’s beat for Lil B’s “I’m God,” which mixes a breathy Imogen Heap sample with a muted, tumbling beat, is the most representative song he’s ever produced. ”I’m God” throbs with an aching sadness that clutches at the bottom of your throat. Though “I’m God” is sorely missed on the record, Casino has filled out the record with an embarrassment of riches. ”Numb,” the only unreleased track on the record, is an obvious highlight because of lonesome billows of hazy vocal samples that buffet around the lurching beat. Likewise, “Realist Alive” is nothing without the slow, plaintive Adele sample. Casino’s source material is certainly surprising (Imogen Heap, Janelle Monae, Björk, Adele) but it’s not his only trick. The translucent sheets of synths that blow in and out of the mix are frequently breathtaking, as they are on “Real Shit from a Real Nigga” and “Motivation.” The end effect is a record shot through with an unspeakable kind of sadness, a loneliness that only a song can really capture.
But it’s not all somber hip hop ennui. The skeletal “She’s Hot” is all handclaps and bass, and “Cold War” prepurposes Janelle Monae anthemic plea into something closer to a percussive element. And then there’s “Brainwash by London,” a track that seems to borrow heavily from dubstep’s use of ruined synthesizers and blackout bass tones. The instrumental isn’t upbeat necessarily, but it’s not as hip hop oriented as everything else, especially when the screaming maniac shows up halfway through the song.
As a beat record with its raps surgically removed, Instrumentals may seem like a near pointless exercise in self-promotion. But without the intended rhymes accompanying these tracks, the listener is left with something akin, as my girlfriend pointed out, to the brilliant Garfield Minus Garfield. While Soulja Boy or Lil B aren’t slinging around rhymes, the beats nonetheless create an existential drama that locates a kind of sad beauty in their lonely samples and their beats’ inexorable march forward. The unashamed prettiness of much of this record feels like a sea change to me: Instrumentals isn’t concerned with cool credibility; it’s perfectly satisfied with moving something deep inside you.
Rating: 8 / 10