Final Fantasy VII -Black Materia-
Final Fantasy VII -Black Materia-
January 31, 2011
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Since coming on the videog ame music scene in 2007 with his hip-hop ode to Megaman, Mega Ran, Random has amassed a diverse, and expansive, fanbase due to his impressive lyrical ability. Hailing from Philadelphia and working as a teacher (until 2009), Random has become one of the most in-demand Nerdcore artists in the United States.
No stranger to videogame concept albums, Random announced that he would be following up Forever Famicom with an album devoted to the music of Final Fantasy VII. Following a free digital pre-release, Black Materia is the end result of Random’s work and it retells the story of Final Fantasy VII through rap, but also provides a good amount of contemporary social commentary, which is all-too-frequently missing from modern day hip-hop.
Although undeniably hip-hop in nature, this album is incredibly accessible to more traditional fans of videogame music due to the sampling and lyrical content of each track. These are not just rap songs that feature “One Winged Angel” or “Birth of a God”, they are rap songs about Final Fantasy VII that feature “One Winged Angel” or “Birth of a God”. And by god, they are incredible.
The primary musical focus of Black Materia is on the themes of the individual characters from the game. “Cloud Strife” is every bit as gritty and determined as FFVII’s pointy-haired protagonist, with a great lyrical flow and a great backbeat. The sampled piano works as a perfect counterpoint to the grainy vocal effects and provides uncertainty and momentum throughout the track. Cloud’s story continues on “Mako Reactor” which also encapsulates the events of the opening bombing mission of the game and adds a late 90’s hip-hop feel to the album.
“Cid’s Theme” transforms the story of Cid with appropriate hip-hip elements (“We hijacked the Highwind and scratched off the serial”) and sees a more faithful sampling of the original character’s theme, in all of its swelling MIDI glory. The ending is a bit abrupt, and the track is on the shorter side, but the piece is remarkably solid with fast, relentless strings of syllables flying over the slower, more determined theme composed by Uematsu.
One track that fans of the original soundtrack will likely hunt for is “Aerith’s Theme” and it is the track that sold me on the album. The familiar piano theme is not heard until almost three minutes into the track which may be off-putting to some. The first three minutes are an ethereal recollection of Cloud’s meeting Aerith, blending elements of horrorcore hip-hop with haunting background vocals provided by Spiral Arm and a bass-heavy backbeat. Random’s bold decision to creatively integrate the expected “Aerith’s Theme” to fit his style as a hip-hop lovesong which trails off into an instrumental coda works perfectly, although it may require a bit of patience on the part of the listener if they are skeptical of the opening three minutes.
“Tifa’s Theme”, told from Cloud’s perspective, preserves every bit of tenderness which Uematsu imbued the original with, but adds humor (“We were inseparable/But strictly a platonic thing”) with profound regret (“Her dad starts tripping/Telling me I can’t see her/Man, crushed like red pepper/Think I felt tears falling when they told me to forget her”) over a simple rhythmic backbeat. Unlike “Aerith’s Theme”, the main theme of the original is heard throughout the track which will likely make this one a fan-favorite.
The humor added to Tifa’s theme is given free rein on “Don of the Slums (Interlude)”, a musical ballad of Don Corneo. This track is, much like the portion of the game, more of a comedic aside than anything else (“Hi Tifa, nice to meet you/Your shirt is almost see through!”) While the weakest track on the album in terms of rapping and innovation, it provides a good laugh or two and calls into question the casual Japanese usage of sexuality in roleplaying games (“Crossdressers, whorehouses… are you sure this game’s for teens?”)
“Cry of the Planet” is perhaps the most noteworthy track on the album and breaks the fourth wall by focusing on not on Final Fantasy VII, but on the real world. Random samples Uematsu’s theme perfectly and faithfully while providing lyrical context to make it applicable to both the problems facing the modern world (“Yesterday a young mom threw a baby in the garbage/and a bomb exploded right in an Afghani market”) and the apathy with which they are received (“The planet tried to warn us/But we worry about the trivial/Superstars,interviews, millionaires, drama/What’s gotten into you?”) With “Cry of the Planet”, Random reminds listeners of the social commentary that both videogames and hip-hop can provide. It’s anomalous from the rest of the tracks on Black Materia but is arguably the most important track on the album.
No arrangement of the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack would be complete without “One Winged Angel” and Random’s reimaging is imposing in both intensity and length. The opening minute is rapped from the perspective of Sephiroth and gives a bitter energy to his anger which was wholly absent Advent Children‘s too cool to care antagonist. The remainder of the lyrics are from the perspective of Cloud and feature a catchy chorus and thumping backbeat that integrates the choral “Seph-i-roth” perfectly into its syncopation. At 4:15 into “One Winged Angel”, the familiar victory fanfare is heard and the track is musically over. What follows over the course of the next 12 minutes is a spoken autobiography of Random’s life, which I initially confused with the biography of Cloud Strife given the nature of the album:
“After that was finally all over, man, I had to get back to real life. Shoot, I was way behind on school… bills… everything was going crazy. Eventually, man, I got it together. Wound up graduating, got a little job. Never really felt fulfilled at the job, so I took a part time at the studio…”
I had my suspicions he was no longer talking about Cloud at this point, and once he mentioned teaching a hip-hop class at Temple (University) my suspicions were confirmed. Also confirmed was Random’s obvious emotional investment in the character of Cloud, and it was this precise emotional investment which helped Black Materia be as strong of an album as it is. Most all of us see aspects of ourselves in video game characters and recall them fondly when we hear their themes, but unique is the gamer who sees an aspect of himself and then makes a hip-hop album about it.
Black Materia is a project that simply works. Were it attempted by an average rapper, it could have easily come off as cheesy and awkward as an afterschool special. Thankfully, Random is far from average and the care with which Nobuo Uematsu’s original tracks are sampled help propel Black Materia to stratospheric heights despite the few missteps along the way.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Matt Diener. Last modified on August 1, 2012.