For all the banal, paint-by-numbers Hip-Hop albums out there today, there is a steady undercurrent of alternatives. Artists such as Lyrics Born and Apathy continue to operate outside the major label system, affording them a creativity to pursue the art form in its purest form. The result is often stellar and stark work in the field.
There is also an altogether different genre of Hip-Hip: Nerdcore. It is performed mainly by those seen as not only outsiders, but near-polar opposites of the prototypical Hip-Hop artist. Many of the subjects range from video games and comics to simply being alienated by either those in everyday life or in the Hip-Hop genre itself. Like any other genre, the work can range from derivative to stellar, but all of it is certainly inimitable in form.
Random (aka MegaRan) has a foot stepped in each facet of Hip-Hop. Starting with 2006’s The Call, Random then decided to make an album about Capcom’s de-facto mascot Mega Man. The album, a critical and financial success, earned the attention of not only Capcom (who has licensed the music of Mega Man for his exclusive use) but to Hip-Hop and Nerdcore fans everywhere.
Random recently made a surprising switch, dedicating his musical attention to Square Enix while enlisting other collaborators such as Lost Perception, Storyville, and The ThoughtCriminals, among others. The result is Black Materia: Final Fantasy VII, an album that could turn Nerdcore on its ear and gain the attention of the mainstream Hip-Hop fans if there is any justice in this world.
As indicated by the title, a word of warning should be heeded here. It really helps to be a fan—or have at least played to completion—the game Final Fantasy VII to completely understand the storyline references. The entire album is about the game and its characters, often in great detail. To have a greater appreciation for the record, that understanding is very helpful.
However, a huge point that Random and company have going for them is the record is not impenetrable without that knowledge. Far from it, as a matter of fact. Random, Storyville, and others tell the story without having to know it with both great detail and simplicity. In songs such as “Tifa,” “Aerith,” and “Cloud Strife”—songs named for their subjects—each backstory and motivation is given all in excellent examples of storytelling in Rap. Their deftness in conveying the overall tale is amazing here—a perfect example of how accessible Nerdcore can be.
The emotions of the characters involved hit home as well, adding to the effect. This may be about a video game, but a main idea to take home is that, despite fantastical settings, each role is easily relatable. From the sublime joy of “Lord of the Slums” to the nihilistic rage of “One Winged Angel” (an album highlight, to be sure), there’s no loss of feeling in any of the tracks on Black Materia: Final Fantasy VII. Much of it comes from the adoration they feel for this work and translating that into what’s heard on the album.
Arguably the most amazing thing about this album is how both Nerdcore and conventional Hip-Hop are blended in to a seamless experience. Not only is the storytelling steeped in traditional Rap and still reachable, the music is also employed to similar effect. As one of the most popular game soundtracks of all time, the original music of Nobuo Uematsu is instantly recognizable. Instead of reworking that past the point of recognition, producer Lost Perception manages to fit the sweeping score into the genre of Hip-Hop, creating some of the most fascinating beats heard anywhere.
It almost seems odd to hold an album completely dedicated to a video game in comparison to your typical Hip-Hop fare, but Random and Lost Perception have crafted an achievement that, with the right attention and aligning of stars, could open a lot more people’s eyes to what Hip-Hop and Nerdcore are capable of. It may be a little early to declare an Album of the Year for Hip-Hop, but this is certainly a vibrant and unique candidate already.
Photo: courtesy of Random