This review has me backtracking in more than one sense: first, because this series of records, Mega Ran in Language Arts, was released in May 2012.  (That said, untimeliness is nothing new with my nerdcore reviews—see my review of Dual Core’s All The Things, published 10 months after its release date).  Secondly, because of a statement I made in the Dual Core review that has been on my conscience ever since.  I named Random as one of a handful of legitimate nerdcore emcees, but then took a little bit of that compliment back by saying that he and the others seemed overly self-conscious of themselves as nerds rapping.

I knew that Random’s debut from 2006, The Call, was an album of straight-up underground hip-hop.  But like many listeners, I first knew Random as “Mega Ran”—a persona based upon the title character of the video game series Mega Man that Random adopted on his second album, Mega Ran.  That album’s beats, produced by DJ DN3, remain noteworthy for being sampled from 8- and 16-bit Mega Man video games.  I remember first viewing the YouTube video for Shadow Man from that album and smiling when I heard the sound: 8-bit bass matched with drums in the style of Nelly Furtado and Timbaland’s Say It Right, and a highly confident, battle-minded emcee delivering punch line after punch line.

Even though I enjoyed Shadow Man (as well as Aqua Soul and Robot City), I couldn’t get into Mega Ran as a whole.  I felt that Random’s tying the project down to a single video game series constrained the music, and that the source material had undue influence on the artist.  I’ll be the first to admit that, unlike Random, I don’t have precious childhood memories of playing Mega Man.  Yet when he moved on to a game I do have precious memories of playing, Final Fantasy VII, I thought the resulting album (Black Materia) still suffered from the same problems.

2010’s Forever Famicom with K-Murdock of Panacea marked a big positive step.  Although the content was as deeply embedded in old-school video games as ever, each song was based on a different game, and the song’s concept wasn’t always tied to that game.  The creative freedom of Forever Famicom made it the first Mega Ran album I could easily listen to from start to finish.

If Forever Famicom was a forward step, then Language Arts is a quantum leap—but one that also brings Random full circle.  Random has a second persona besides Mega Ran that, for him, is much closer to home: a middle school English teacher.  Before his Mega Ran releases led to a Capcom endorsement and a full-time music career, Random taught language arts in Philadelphia and Phoenix public schools.  Language Arts draws upon that life experience.  The figure of a teacher elegantly unites the two sides of Random as an aspiring underground artist (talented yet underappreciated) and a nerdcore standout (unashamedly geeky).

That perspective also makes for compelling listening material.  The first song, City of Angels, has a soberness rarely heard on Random’s nerdcore albums since The Call.  It tells of an inner city where students go to school and teachers go to teach, but where troubling events occur behind the scenes.  Random’s uninterrupted verse lasts for about 2:30:

Pray for the wisdom to make the right decisions,
It’s like a broken hand on the clock of life,
‘Cause you never know who might get shot tonight
So I teach and rock the mic,
It sounds like day and night, but truly there’s a lot to like,
Got to stand up in front of a child that’s been jaded by the lies he’s been told,
And that’s that he can’t make it in a society that don’t want to see him succeed,
While everybody around is doing devilish deeds…

Wake Up! follows,  featuring MC Frontalot, one of the album’s A-list guest appearances that include MC Lars (Me and the Mouse 2.0) and mc chris (Student VS. Teacher).  While Random relates the difficulty he experiences in getting out of bed and preparing for school (only to find out he arrived to teach on a Saturday), MC Frontalot expresses his gratitude for his fans in his own unique style:

You know how you sometimes meet a nerd rapper who hasn’t showered?
That was probably me—beg your forgiveness,
It’s only through your largesse,
That I’m even allowed to live this dream out,
So when I’m cussing about my wack boss…
Shed a lone tear, then remind me,
That every day I wake up is a day dawned kindly…

Language Arts’ beats are supplied by long-time Random collaborator DJ DN3, and sound extra fresh for being mostly free of video game samples.  It’s not that the video game-based beats weren’t fresh—they were—but they hemmed Random in.  DJ DN3 provides some classic hip-hop sounds based in soul and funk, as well as other eclectic genres (e.g., synthpop in To.Get.Her) that are admirably expansive.

Each volume of Language Arts is conceptual: Volume 1 follows Random through a “typical” day at school; Volume 2 deals with his romantic relationships; and Volume 3 centers upon a Rocky-like rap battle that could yield him a major recording contract.  The records play out as a serial drama in which a narrator explains Random’s present situation at the beginning and end of each volume.  In an intertwining storyline from the students’ perspective, a first-person shooter called KillCount is the hot new trend, but it has negative effects on players’ behavior and academic performance.

A common thread running through Language Arts are songs written about literature and literary figures, such as Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (Buggin’), the Daniel Keyes short story Flowers for Algernon (Me and the Mouse 2.0), and the poet Maya Angelou (Maya’s Song).  MC Lars—who has written numerous literature-themed songs of his own, and who holds an English degree from Stanford—is a natural selection for Me and the Mouse 2.0. The chorus, written from the viewpoint of the character Charlie Gordon, speaks from the heart of the alienated person:

You want to stand out?  I want to fit in,
You want to get away?  I want to get in,
You don’t know how it feels, don’t want to find out,
So it’s just me and the mouse…

In reviewing a project of this scope and quality, it would take a book of annotations to highlight all of the memorable moments, from Random’s dictionary definition of a musical “bridge” during the bridge of “Language Arts (First Day of School)” to his rhymed 11-part advice for students about to take exams in “Test-Taking Tips.”  Language Arts’ three volumes and 34 tracks are a wealth of music both harkening back to and exceeding rap artists’ output during the late ‘90s, when many of the biggest names were releasing double albums.

But Language Arts doesn’t stop there: to my knowledge, Language Arts is the first album to include a video game tie-in as part of its release.  The game, produced by Lunar Giant and playable at language-arts-game.com, is a fun little side-scroller based upon Mega Man (of course!).  Furthermore, the Kickstarter-based funding of Language Arts means that, in some ways, it remains an ongoing project.  Now that the $15,000 level is reached, an 88-page graphic novel based upon Language Arts is also in the works.  The Kickstarter page currently indicates a $30,000 ceiling for fundraising.

Language Arts is a fascinating, successful, and even educational project on many levels.  I might be alone in needing to say that Random’s art has real depth, and isn’t just a “fan fiction” stemming from an infatuation with Nintendo’s (and Capcom, and Square’s) intellectual properties.  After having been treated to Language Arts, I wish I could be proven wrong in this way more often.

Reviewed by John Koch

 

Random aka Mega Ran
Mega Ran in Language Arts (Volumes 1, 2, and 3)
Produced by DJ DN3
Mastered by K-Murdock
Executive Producer: Random Beats and numerous Kickstarter funders

 

Mega Ran in Language Arts - Volumes 1Mega Ran in Language Arts - Volumes 2Mega Ran in Language Arts - Volumes 3Mega Ran in Language Arts - Volumes 4Random aka Mega Ran 01


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