Thursday, February 03, 2011

It's a Black (Materia) Thing

I totally suggested this album's title! #achievementunlocked
In 2007 it was unlikely that any of us realized the extent to which video games would influence the career of  underground Philadelphia hip-hopper Random. While his 2006 debut The Call caught the attention of intelligent heads with the good fortune to find it, his follow-up Mega Ran brought his unique brand of positive lyricism to the masses – with a little help from Capcom, of course.

Since that time Ran has made it a habit of crossing over the invisible line that separates nerdcore from more accessible styles of hip-hop at every opportunity, proving time and again that a geeky slant and a gamer's passion don't necessarily make for insincere rhymes. In his most recent effort, Black Materia: Final Fantasy VII, he once again manages to make his own voice heard amid a well-worn video game narrative.

The album begins with an introduction track that sets the stage for the iconic (if convoluted) story. It builds slowly in intensity and importance before transitioning to "Cloud Strife," in which Ran channels the spirit of our reluctant hero. The production is spot on, and Random sounds as steady as ever. "Tifa's Theme" quickly follows up with a brilliant use of Nobuo Uematsu's original theme. An early highlight, it also serves as the transition to the action of the album.

"AVALANCHE" is a breezy yet powerful joint that manages to transmute an otherwise laughable hook into a borderline banger, and it casts Random as a very convincing Barret Wallace. This is followed by a pair of previously leaked tracks, "Mako Reactor" and "Aerith." While nearly pitch-perfect on their own merits, together they masterfully retell the story of Cloud's fall from Midgar. While "Mako Reactor" conveys the narrative in a matter-of-fact style that's ably supplemented by a stark beat, "Aerith" plays against a delicate melody that works on a number of levels.

The "Don Corneo" interlude features the internet's Brentalfloss, and though I found it positively grating it does serve as an adequate enough bridge to "Don of the Slums." This one features some nice guest work from both Storyville and my hometown homeboys The ThoughtCriminals. Moody and frenetic, it marks the album's mid-point in indubitable fashion.

Another standout on the production end is "Cosmo Canyon." Boasting rhymes from Australian MC The Ranger, it's a bit of an oddity – because there's not a bit of Mega Ran to be heard therein – but it's a brief if ambitious track that admirably shares the spotlight. The same can be said for "The Turks," which features the smooth swagger of Dale Chase. Some nice instrumental gymnastics shift the tempo in the song's waning moments and slyly introduces "On That Day 5 Years Ago," another fine slice of Random's storytelling.

Yet another change-up takes us to "Birth of a God (feat. MC Pennywise and Devastate)," which swells and swirls and, in turn, powers the album toward the oddly understated "Cid's Theme." Phil Harmonic is likely my least favorite guest star of this particular project, but this track does add an interesting new lyrical character to the tale.

Things begin to wind down with the anthemic "Cry of the Planet." Likely Black Materia's single best track it finds Random putting a conscious spin on the source material and producer Lost Perception playing with aural textures and tight stereo panning. Strong and challenging, it takes us to "Absolute," which features amazing turns by both Ilyas and Maja.

"One Winged Angel" closes out the album as part of a nearly 17-minute megamix that also boasts the album's spoken-word ending and a bonus track. While the proper songs are likely the selling points, Mega Ran's own story of triumph is the most compelling element. The only complaint, and really the only drawback to the project itself, is the unwieldy length of this closer. I would've love to see this split into a trio of more manageable tracks and integrated directly into the proper narrative, but different strokes for different folks.

In Black Materia: Final Fantasy VII Random does an amazing job of leveraging not only the strength of Final Fantasy VII's original story and soundtrack, but also the unique energy of the overall collaboration. From the stellar production by Lost Perception to amazing turns by a veritable grocery list of contributors, it's a musical triumph that will surely age as gracefully in the hearts and minds of its fan as the game by which it was inspired.

At this point in his career an enjoyable Mega Ran album is far from a surprising turn of events, but there's something extra special about this one. While the overall lyrical slant of Black Materia is more linear and less impressionistic than in much of Random's other work, he and Lost Perception manage to mine the tale of political intrigue, class struggle and metaphysics to the fullest.

"Sharpen your mind so it remains the most powerful tool / At your disposal…"

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Nerdy Little Secret

Seattle's superhero community is at it again. No, not this guyKirby Krackle!

The band's newest video (and de facto single from my pick for 2010 album of the year, E for Everyone) "Secret Identity" just hit the YouTubes. Animated in the charming, manga-influenced style of Betsy Lee, it's a proper tribute to true working class heroes.

Peep the embed below, and then be sure to hit up the official Kirby Krackle YouTube channel to give Jim, Kyle and Betsy some love.