Never judge a book by its cover. When I heard that “Black Materia” was an album centered around the famous RPG Final Fantasy VII and named after a character in the game, I wrote the album off almost immediately without even hearing a single track. I had never even heard of Random, aka Mega Ran, and I simply couldn’t fathom how any emcee could turn a video game into a rap album without coming off as nerdy and immature. What’s more, while I don’t abstain from all video games, I have never played Final Fantasy and therefore know almost nothing about the game itself. My initial skepticism, though, was quelled after just a quick listen through of the album, which couldn’t have been further from what I expected, and I soon found myself mesmerized by Random’s powerful flow and impressive storytelling ability.

Right off the bat, it’s obvious that Random isn’t afraid to bridge the gap between hip-hop and other genres, as Lost Perception, who produces every song on the CD, incorporates elements from soul, electronic, and classical music in his beats. What really makes Random unique, though, is his trademark style of sampling music from retro video games, and “Black Materia” stays with this trend. Sometimes these samples are thrown in along with a drum loop and a plethora of other sounds, and sometimes they simply stand on their own, giving the tracks an authentic, retro vibe, but either way they make for an interesting and fresh sound. Don’t be fooled, though, by the presence of synthesizers and video game samples; Lost Perception lays down hard-hitting drums and deep basslines on nearly every track, giving the album an old-school hip-hop feel that resonates throughout. Simply put, “Black Materia” is far from your everyday hip-hop album in terms of production, and Random, who also teaches middle school English as a second job, is not your average emcee.

Throughout his latest release, Random transitions back and forth between Final Fantasy and the real world, but he always maintains an introspective approach and a delivery that holds nothing back. Even as a non-aficionado of Final Fantasy, I found myself fixated by the tale Random spins on “Aerith,” a six-minute track dedicated to recounting the death of a character in the game that contrasts a lighthearted flute with a heavy set of drums. He spits equally heartfelt verses on “Tina’s Theme,” another song named after a Final Fantasy persona, which features flowing grand piano keys and mellow synths that give that track a nostalgic feel. “Avalanche” switches things up, though, with a much more new school beat that pits a catchy whistle over a driving brassy synth. Random gets on the track and takes it up a notch, rapping noticeably faster with near perfect timing, and an unnamed emcee kicks an impressive second verse to close things out.

Random’s most impressive lyrical performance, though, is “Cry of the Planet,” easily the most socially conscious song on the album. A deep, almost trippy introduction transitions into an instrumental that can best be described as hardcore electronic hip-hop, and Random wastes no time grabbing the listener’s attention with a powerful first verse concerning the environmental crisis faced by the world:

“You can hear the cries of the planet, even scientists can’t understand it
We all at a disadvantage, impossible to manage
So called experts is calling it a hoax
Now it’s time for the networks to take a new approach
Greenhouse gases, natural disasters
Unexplained phenomena, time to wake up outta the mind state
If we can’t change things, the world is changing
How many times we gotta see the same thing
Hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions
We need more action and much less discussion
And less corruption before we all goners
Somebody inform what the Earth is tryin’ to warn us
But we worry ’bout the trivial, superstars’ interviews
Millionaires’ drama people what’s gotten into you
Temperature is risin’ like the CO2 levels
It’s settled, sooner or later we’ll see the true devils”

As he goes on to cover issues such as terrorism and the American Dream, it becomes clear that Random’s verses are both thoughtful and inquisitive, and his strong, unwavering delivery is especially prominent on “Cry of the Planet.”

The bottom line is that, even if you don’t care for Final Fantasy VII (or for video games at all) it is still refreshing to hear an artist who is truly passionate about something, and this is ultimately what shines through on “Black Materia.” Unfortunately, at the time this review was written, the full length album was not yet available (it officially dropped on January 31st), and I was left with the eight-track “album preview” and could only wonder what other tricks Random and Lost Perception had up their sleeves. I’ll admit, the fact that “Black Materia” is based on Final Fantasy does make it somewhat difficult to relate to the more video game-orientated songs for those such as myself, but in the end the impressive lyricism and distinctive production style blend together to create an enjoyable and unique album that is unlike most anything else in the hip-hop game today. Of course, “Black Materia” is a can’t miss for Final Fantasy VII fans, but anyone looking for a fresh sound that diverges from the norm should not sleep on Random’s latest release.

Random (a/k/a Mega Ran) and Lost Perception :: Black Materia: Final Fantasy VII [promo sampler]
7.5Overall Score