I admit that we made a mistake - well more specifically I made a mistake. If that seems like an unconventional way to begin a review, it helps to start with the fact that RR covered "Black Materia" back in February. Through no fault of his own, the writer covering the project received an incomplete copy of the album, one which was supplied to the website for preview rather than REview. For an amount of time that I find embarrassing to me, this mistake flew completely under my radar, until the artist HIMSELF pointed it out to me after I met him in person for the first time a couple of months ago.
Now to Random a/k/a Mega Ran's credit he was not the least bit hostile about this mistake, which is a rather unconventional reaction among artists to say the least. For doing someone a disservice of that magnitude the responses can be anything ranging from rude e-mails to physical threats. The latter is usually more a response to feeling "dissed" because the writer in question found an album to be of subpar quality, but it remains in the realm of possible outcomes. I'm happy to say that's not Ran's forte. It's not even that I expected it to be - after all the dude's not exactly portraying a gun-toting gangster on his albums, unless you mean a Nintendo light gun with a cord attached to a console. Still a mistake like that could have soured the lines of communication and damaged our ability to work with him on future reviews. He had only one request to repair the damage - do another review but this time use the FULL length LP.
That's a request I was happy to honor. It wasn't the original writer's fault he received an incomplete album - it was mine for distributing something for review that really wasn't meant to be reviewed. I don't consider it to be an onerous task in the slightest - in fact the reason I hadn't reviewed the album originally was because I perceived a chance of bias on my part. I've known Random for many years now, and even though I only met him in person for the first time recently, I consider him a good friend. Furthermore we have a common interest when it comes to the relationship between hip-hop and video games, which like Ran I've always felt is just as "real" as rappers who talk about slanging drugs or driving expensive cars.
It could be argued that thinking everybody in the U.S. grew up playing video games is a middle class conceit, but the anecdotal stories I've heard suggest the only real difference is whether you owned your own system or went to someone else's house to play theirs - in my case it was certainly the latter. Not owning a game system hardly made me any less interested in playing them, and in college my roommate and I bought a used Sega Genesis from a pawn shop the first chance we got. I've always been a gamer going back to the days of Space Invaders, and so has Ran. All that changed over the years is the technology improved, the graphics got better, and the music changed from bits and bleeps to fully orchestrated music worthy of being played in concert halls. "Final Fantasy VII" is perhaps the greatest example of the latter in recent memory. The graphics may have been primitive compared to what today's systems can do, but the story was so immersive that over 10 million copies have sold to date, and Nobuo Uematsu's score for the game is no small part of that experience.
"Black Materia: Final Fantasy VII" represents both how influential that game was to Random when it came out, and how receptive a hip-hop audience would be to a rap album based on it. Skeptics would have said it couldn't be done, and perhaps SHOULDN'T be done, but Ran did it anyway. It's fair to say there's a little bit of embellishment to the storyline of the game to make the plot fit into a rhyming structure, but "little" is the operative word. It's quite remarkable if you spent any amount of time playing FF7 just how faithful Ran is to the story, which I might add is longer than even all three movies in The Lord of the Rings trilogy if you watch them all back to back. Now someone doing a "speed run" can finish the game and reach the climactic final battle faster, but they'd miss out on all the side quests and optional characters you can meet up with, or the chance to breed and raise your own Chocobo. What's a Chocobo? Oh right, you haven't played the game. Well let's just say it's like a cross between a horse and an ostrich. The characters and their motives are intriguing and make you want to learn more about them, like Barret, the leader of what the government in their world has deemed a terrorist group named "AVALANCHE":
"B, A, R, R, E, one T
They gon' have to come get me if they want me
I don't bend, I don't break, I don't care about much
Just my daughter Marlene and my people bein free
See you gotta understand son, I don't have the answer
I just keep the faith, and I always keep a handgun
No I mean it literal, cause I got a "hand" gun
I call it a gun arm, so I'm never unarmed
Keep goin 'til the planet is at peace
And if somebody's gotta die, guess that's just a small casualty
Keep my hightop fade, and I keep a bad attitude
"Pity the fool" that compare me to that other dude
AVALANCHE reppin 'til the day I pass on
And even if I'm gone, the legacy will, last, long"
As you can see the story is quite complex and there are a lot of different people in it each playing their part. Barret may not like being compared to Mr. T, but they each had one thing in common besides being dark skinned and muscular - they care about the little people and they want to help save them when where they can. In fact Barret and his crew think they can save the entire planet from an environmental disaster by taking out these electricity producing plants. The type of electricity they produce is known in the game as "mako" and runs everything from TV sets to trains to cars to household appliances, and people are so dependent on it they can't picture life without it - until AVALANCHE decides to hit the streets and take out a "Mako Reactor" or two. This time the story is being told from the perspective of Cloud, a member of Barret's crew:
"In my line of work, there's no time for softies
These treehuggers better wake up and smell the coffee
Been around the block man I'm far from a beginner
I been in reactors back when I worked for Shinra
And they don't trust me, and I don't like them
And I don't blame 'em, cause I ain't like them
War? They ain't built for it; trouble's like my wallet
I only find it when I'm never lookin for it
So as I set the bomb I start to get a premonition
Some kinda feelin this shouldn't be a part of the mission
But I do it, ten minutes remain
Before reactor one is goin down in flames
And so we out, to the train to rest
Part one of the mission, is a complete success
So for now it seems that the good guys are winning
But this ain't the ending, its only the beginning"
Cloud seems at first impression to be a very unlikeable protagonist to the game player - he's a spiky haired loner who is sullen half of the time and surly the other half. As you can tell from Random's rap, he's a soldier of fortune who literally comes from an army +called+ SOLDIER. They enforced the law for Shinra, the company that supplied people with mako, a company so large and powerful they essentially act as the de facto government and treat the mayor of the hero's hometown like their own personal pet. They give him an office to shuffle papers around in but little power to do anything about anything. And that's not the only bad news true believers. Rufus, the President of Shinra, has his own elite cadre of enforcers who work as a black ops team to take out any target he wants or capture people to perform dangerous mako experiments on. Random lets a few guest rappers in on the FF7 fun and Dale Chase is one, so he busts a rhyme about this crew of "Turks":
"Dirty work done without gettin your mitts dirty
Operate covert to avert controversy
or, tear your sector down, snatchin your people up
Singin a sad song when Tseng and the Turks creep up
Hit squad for hire, specialists in ruthless
Odd jobs for Shinra, on retainer with Rufus
You seein those dark suits, it's no use
If, told to, the light they will show you
Reno, red dragon, electro-mag
Pyramid scheme, bringin down your AVALANCHE
Your whole zone a victim of circumstance
When, it's time your clan won't stand a chance
In a tag you got Rude; the nice with the hands dude
The toe to toe box you up like fast food
Trust me, don't be faulty with the baldy
Compulsively clad in dark specs to part necks
And then ya, got Elena
Bombshell frag hag, darling of detonators
The blonde nitro, pyro light show
Strictly biz rookie dynamo
Loyal to financial backers
The cunning, fearsome, murderous godwackers
With the thought don't even flirt
Weave what you will, but never tangle with the Turks"
So what's a rag-tag group of so-called eco-terrorists supposed to do with the corporate controlled government and their army of SOLDIERS and black ops hitmen for hire in The Turks out to stop them by any means? Well that's why you play the game Dunn. You try to help Cloud, Barret and his friends overcome the odds, and they are mightily long. I can't even begin to list the sheer number of plot twists and turns. Cloud learns he's not who he thinks he is. His best friend from childhood knows secrets that she's not telling. Our man with the gun for a hand Barret has a dark and tragic past, and he's not talking that much either. We haven't even discussed the biggest part of the plot yet, and that involves a simple girl from the slums who sells flowers to make a living. You ultimately learn her name is Aerith, and her secret is the biggest one of all, one that will affect everybody on your team and will in fact change the fate of the entire planet. This game is deep. I mean real deep. Deeper than Atlantis.
Random and his homeboy Lost Perception go out of their way to take the actual orchestral soundtrack of Final Fantasy VII and rework it into hip-hop beats worthy of busting video game raps to, and in my likely somewhat biased opinion, they do a damn good job. The ringing bells of "Aerith" are lifted from the part of the game where you try to stop the number one villain from stealing an incredibly destructive weapon, one which in the end only she has the power to stop. Some songs are even more literal though - "Cry of the Planet" is taken from a Nobuo Uematsu song called "You Can Hear the Cry of the Planet" although thanks to Lost Perception it's got a banging drumtrack and extra layers of instrumentation. The album moves in a linear progression toward the ultimate confrontation with the "One Winged Angel" antagonist, but it hardly ends there. There are three bonus beats, including the same FF7 "Victory Fanfare" that DJ Idee once had Jean Grae spit on. For the remix minded there are even two acapellas.
At nearly 90 minutes long, "Black Materia" is no small dose of music, but considering the epic video game it's based on that seems both fitting and appropriate. It's also appropriate that we review the longer and in fact finally mastered version of "Final Fantasy VII" to do this album the justice it deserves with a review. Our apologies for having made a mistake.
Music Vibes: 8 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 8 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 8 of 10
Originally posted: November 1st, 2011