Instrumental Hip Hop is a tricky proposition. Hip Hop production is generally predicated on samples and loops, and essentially takes a backseat to emceeing when it comes to telling the story. But for a Hip Hop album to succeed relying solely on instrumentation, a delicate balance must be struck. To successfully captivate the listener, they cannot simply be subjected to the typical looping and sampling fare of the day; just as lyrics progress through the duration of a song, so must the production in an instrumental project—all of which must be done without abandoning the tools and techniques which command the classification of being “Hip Hop.” Apollo Brown’s Clouds aims to strike this balance.
After the non-instrumental start to the largely instrumental album, the moody “Blue Ruby” sets things off with light bass licks, soft percussion and a distant vocal sample. “Balance” continues to give the listener an immersive, otherworldly experience. “Wisdom” is a brief, remorseful ditty that distinguishes itself by telling a story contextualized by its title. “Black Pearls” gets the system pumping with some hard-hitting drums, soft horns, and a well-timed violin sample. “Shoot the Heart” appropriately samples lyrics from Pharcyde’s seminal “Passin’ Me By,” and has a summery, airy feel.
“Bridge Through Time” brings a bit of funk to the album with its quirky bass line and “Seed of Memory” has a loungey aesthetic, with soft claps that are a distant departure from the majority of the (often-plodding) percussion featured on this record. “A Conscious Breath” is tremendously disappointing, but not for lack of quality. Clocking in at only 49 seconds, it appears that one of Cloud’s best offerings—a gentle, moving piece that sets itself apart from those surrounding it with its use of harps, cello and flute—is cut painfully short.
The problem—and it is a significant one—with Clouds is that it is more akin to a beat tape than an album. Yes, the majority of the beats are innovative and it can be easy to imagine various emcees slaying them. Having said that, for this album to be judged on its merits, it must be examined as a project that stands on its own. Sure, slapping Nas on “Never in a Million Years” might make it an outstanding song, but such specious reasoning doesn’t accomplish anything.
Instrumental Hip Hop albums that set the standard, like the bulk of RJD2's Deadringer or Blockhead's Music By Cavelight, do so by existing as complete projects that require little else to sustain them. The production here is often a series of unchanging loops, and the instrumentation rarely evolves beyond that. Indeed, there is little time to do so, as none of the tracks exceeds three minutes. Any album—instrumental or otherwise—should meaningfully provoke a listener and give allow them to experience a complete progression through the sonic art on display. Because it falls short in this respect, Clouds is only an album in name.