Game Music Saturdays: Black Materia – Final Fantasy VII

Random, a.k.a, MegaRan, is a most interesting character. An aspiring MC who was a school teacher in Arizona, he eventually arose to stardom within the gaming community simply by rapping about video games. Specifically, his album MegaRan, using Mega Man music as a launchpad for innovative rhymes, launched his career in 2007 under Capcom’s permission (as they own the property). He’s been going strong ever since, releasing album after album of high quality rhymes and excellent beats augmented with whatever game or subject he happens to cover. Now, that sounds in some cases like a recipe for disaster. It’s acceptable to use video games in sampling and the like, and even within the weird subgenre known as “nerdcore” (mc chris being the only prominent example I can name off the top of my head), which combines nerdy subject matter and hip-hop braggadacio with unorthodox sampling. But there’s not really a “video game” MC other than Random, as he calls himself, that actually plays and loves games.

So it is that we come to Black Materia: Final Fantasy VII. Some might scoff at the idea of concept albums, the idea of a unified narrative within a music album. Pretensious material from progressive rock bands like Rush (hello, Ayn Rand! Nice to meet you!) and Pink Floyd (The Wall) have given way to self-indulgent musical virtuosity with little to show. Such concept albums require a difficult balancing act between accesibility and an excellent, stand-alone musical background to augment the elements of that story. If you can’t make it either, it’s just a bout of wretched excess, and nobody likes that (well, I’m sure somebody does for some reason, but you get the point).

Now, in a story-telling medium like rap music, the paradigm shifts a bit. Stories remain endemic to the medium, even if we’re talking about how great one rapper compares to another. If it’s always in the context of story, then a strong story complements a great rapping style. That is what I believe strikes me about Black Materia so much: especially for anyone familiar with Final Fantasy VII, we revisit the same story and also see a little of Random’s perspective on the whole narrative. And he certainly knows and studied the story to come up with this. As previous blog posts have shown, I think it’s a great game with a fantastic story that, at times, is a little nonsensical. So what did Random do with it?

The introduction interprets the events as the result of Sephiroth’s hatred of everything – certainly not my particular perception of events in the game, but that’s what is cool about this album. The Introduction is actually done in spoken word style to describe to the listening the circumstances of the setting, with Mako, Lifestream, Shinra, and all those elements. “Cloud Strife” gives us Cloud’s perspective on Sephiroth’s descent into madness and his own identity crisis, relating to SOLIDER and what actually happened to himself. “Tifa” uses elements of her theme (LostPerception’s awesome production augmenting it) to recall the story of Cloud and Tifa, as well as the coma and the accident. It’s an exemplary examination of the relationship through the words, and I think it comes off pretty convincingly. Plus, Random has a host of different guests artists that play as different voices, all of which pull the story together even more than a single narrator. It’s quite successful at pulling these disparate elements together into cohesion.

On that note, it appears to tell the story in chronological order, actually! That’s not how the game does it, but a music artist gets to manipulate the story for their own purpose, and it works here because it’s framed that way effectively. When it comes from my perspective, rap albums work on two levels: lyrical content and sound. As far as the lyrics go, it’s pretty awesome to have one of your favorite video games expressed in a completely new medium. Random has an excellent flow that makes the meaning come out clearly. He doesn’t deliver too fast to understand, nor drawing out the syllables; he simply states exactly what he wants in an almost conversational style. So yeah, he’s not going abstract and weird like Aesop Rock, nor does he let the production of LostProduction overwhelm him like El-P’s production can tend to do (both are alternative hip-hop, and worth checking out as well). It’s a nice balance, and makes tracks like “Mako Reactor” stand-out for make the continuous tale easy to digest, explaining how everybody’s thinking in the various events of the game.

For a rap album, nowadays, it’s pretty exemplary. As well, there’s no bad language or anything offensive (except for the Don Coreno stuff), so it’s an all-ages affair. Sometimes, offensive lyricism and curse words can become a crutch, but Random seems to take care to avoid them, and it shows in the creative rhymes. It appeals to nostalgia a bit much in places, though. Random is extremely talented as a rapper, but would I know about this album if, in fact, it were not based on a Final Fantasy game (or Mega Man, for that matter)? I am not sure. It’s much easier to follow if you’ve actually played FFVII, but imagine piecing this together without the benefit of the game – I can’t even imagine that working well. Regardless, it still works as an album even if you’re tastes don’t trend torward video games. Except for the Don Corneo stuff, which doesn’t work for me at all. I know he has to cover the whole story, but it just breaks the tone a bit. Maybe it just fits in with the contradictory nature of FFVII, but I still didn’t like it. There’s a theme in the album that deserves serious consideration, not a weirdly sexualized interlude. Much of that content was implied, rather than stated outright in the game.

As such, what most amazes me about Random is his ability to integrate real-world problems into these “make-believe” narratives. There’s an element of social justice almost emerging here, as well as identifying with the plight of the oppressed. “Don of the Slums” takes the time to make some social commentary about the struggle for success and leaving the ghetto, relevant to both real life and FFVII. However, as a centerpiece of both the main line and of Random’s skills, look no further than “Cry of the Planet”, both a lament to the problems of the Final Fantasy world,  the planet itself, and personal struggles with how people cannot even treat each other as neighbors in a world full of fellow human beings. It’s up to us to change it, not just let the world pass by. And we can’t let money and status get in the way of being real human  beings (not that those things don’t help, but obsession is the issue at hand).

Perhaps not everyone will agree with this assessment; I’m sure they’d like to say that “One-Winged Angel” caps off the albums, but Random’s heart truly lies in these issues; video games happen to be his vehicle. Rap with any social consciousness reminds me a great deal of the prophets in the Bible; although they certainly predicted future events, they were not neccesarily aware of their role in the Biblical narrative; their main objective was to speak against injustices in their society and society’s deviance away from God’s commands. In Isaiah 1:21-31, we see Isaiah’s proclamation against Israel’s (specifically Jerusalem as a woman) actions:

How the faithful city has become a harlot, She who was full of justice! Righteousness once lodged in her, But now murderers. 22 Your silver has become dross, Your drink diluted with water. 23 Your rulers are rebels And companions of thieves; Everyone loves a bribe And chases after rewards. They do not defend the orphan, Nor does the widow’s plea come before them. 24 Therefore the Lord God of hosts, The Mighty One of Israel, declares, “Ah, I will be relieved of My adversaries And avenge Myself on My foes. 25 “I will also turn My hand against you, And will smelt away your dross as with lye And will remove all your alloy. 26 “Then I will restore your judges as at the first, And your counselors as at the beginning; After that you will be called the city of righteousness, A faithful city.” 27 Zion will be redeemed with justice And her repentant ones with righteousness. 28 But transgressors and sinners will be crushed together, And those who forsake the Lord will come to an end. 29 Surely you will be ashamed of the oaks which you have desired, And you will be embarrassed at the gardens which you have chosen. 30 For you will be like an oak whose leaf fades away Or as a garden that has no water. 31 The strong man will become tinder, His work also a spark. Thus they shall both burn together And there will be none to quench them.

Let’s say God is serious about this business, if Israel’s eventual destruction and exile are any question. Random, to me, fits in this tradition, except his appeal to the modern generation becomes exponential due to his subject matter and style. I hope he continues in this vein. Even so, there’s lot of theological metaphors in some song; I invite you to look for them, as I’d rather not spoil it.

Of course, the obvious barrier to entry are two things here: the rap music (which, for example, my family members don’t even think is music) and Final Fantasy VII. If you hate either, or aren’t even familiar with them, will you like this? I don’t know. If you are familiar in any way, however, take a listen. It’s not a product anyone would imagine even five years ago, but it just shows how pervasive video games are in our culture. It’s almost like a cross-media product that is just slightly hampered (I really don’t like the Don Corneo stuff) by its content and themes. Give it a listen!

Also, listen to the last track all the way through. I think it makes even more clear what intentions Random has for his music, and it’s not money.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
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  • Jason Walton

    Listening right now, that’s good stuff. Actually helped me get more of an appreciation for FFVII. I saw Mega Ran at the Louisville arcade expo circa 2012 and didn’t see him becoming as “big” as he has. I like his new track “Church” too