Korean rap music has been in the spotlight more than usual as of late with high profile diss-tracks and even higher-profile collaborations. And now with a new primetime offering, Mnet is doubling down on the genre. Those who enjoyed Mnet’s Show Me the Money might want to make time for its spiritual successor, Unpretty Rapstar. The all-female rap competition features a few notable names as well as some you’ve probably never heard of. Unpretty Rapstar promises rap music, competition, and drama. But is it any good?
It would be impossible for us not to discuss the title of this show and what that title represents. There’s an immediate cringe-factor associated with a show that is labeling eight women as “unpretty.” Mnet seems oblivious to the chauvinistic behaviors they are perpetuating by forcing their audience to consider the image of these women prior to the music they produce. And we don’t mean to pick on Mnet or even Kpop; this behavior is prevalent in nearly every genre, in nearly every country. But that does not excuse it. If Unpretty Rapstar truly purports to be a music-based competition, then beauty should have nothing to do with it.
But “unpretty” isn’t what they mean, is it? Mnet, we hope, wants “unpretty” to signify the grit, the rawness so often associated with rap music. Rappers are hard. Reputation is based not on good looks or aegyo. It’s earned through blood, sweat, and rap battles. Rap music is not sweet. It’s not safe and it doesn’t do what you ask it to. It’s...unpretty? We can maybe ascribe this word to a poor effort at translating something that doesn’t have an easy English equivalent.
We might also approach the title as metacommentary on how the show will progress or the rappers perform. Something can be described as “ugly” to indicate that it is not going well. Like in the title of this article, for example. But this is a linguistic nuance that is obviously not understood by those on the show. After the first competition, several of the women voted Jimin as the best performer simply because she looked best on camera, was most comfortable on stage. Even the host, San E, singled Jimin out by calling her a “pretty rapstar.” To their credit, the other women didn’t take this lying down. Jessi threw it right back at San E, reminding him that he too is unpretty. But the underlying problem remains. “Unpretty” may have been meant to signify something inherent in rap music, but it is actively being used throughout the show to describe the eight women who are competing. And that is a problem.
The producers of Unpretty Rapstar have made it clear that this show will in no way be a team-based effort. Forget the crews of the third season of Show Me the Money. This is every woman for herself.
But Mnet was not going to wait for the drama to happen all by itself. That’s why they made sure to include one idol rapper in the lineup. To start the show, the producers brought together one woman at a time with absolutely no introduction. Whether scripted or not, the ensuing conversations were awkward and anxious, and culminated in plenty of snickering and dirty looks, most at the expense of the only idol rapper. Jimin rewarded Mnet’s foresight by producing tears for them in just 28 minutes. Not exactly high drama, but better than watching Yuk Ji Dam cry because the producers didn’t bother to check if she could enter a club underage. Another of Mnet’s member selections paid off when Jessi, apparently aching for screen time in episode 2, decided to freestyle her feelings. If drama is your thing, then Jessi’s your girl.
A more interesting dramatic element of Unpretty Rapstar is that the competitors vote publicly on who should win and lose (yes, lose!) each competition. Cue smoldering look. The women are asked to judge one another whether their votes count or not. It’s obvious that Mnet is attempting to increase the level of drama by pitting these eight women against each other. We’ve already written ad nauseum about how this show perpetuates an unfair and dangerous expectation of how women should look, so it would be a real shame if they didn’t tell us how women should act toward one another too. Jessi, perhaps, summed up the feeling created by the producers of Unpretty Rapstar best: “there’s no point being nice to girls.”
“I’m not a little girl. I’m not a superstar.”
There’s a tagline used in the intro to Unpretty Rapstar where we hear the women reminding us of something that is mostly true. They aren’t little girls, though Yuk Ji Dam isn’t far from it. And they aren’t superstars, except for Jimin who most definitely is. But in general, those statements are true. Unpretty Rapstar is a competition for female rappers who are serious about their music, but who haven’t yet made it big. Based on that, we should expect intense competition that produces some truly amazing music.
Which hasn’t exactly happened yet. Things did not begin well, when San E asked the women to introduce themselves with a short cypher. To quote Jimin: “I’m sexy. I’m hot.” That was it. Cheetah used lyrics from a previously released song. But come on, wait a minute, the only beat the women had to work with was from San E’s phone. The real competition for episode 1 was a 100 second cypher in which each competitor was given time to shine. And...Cheetah did. But wait, come on, it was filmed in one-take and Cheetah went first. The rest of them didn’t have the luxury of filming second, third, and fourth takes! Fine, how about episode 2? Surely there was some quality rap to be had once Zico joined the crew. But before we get to that: SELFIES!
The reaction when Zico came into the room was more evidence that seven of these women are definitely not superstars. After the excitement died down, Unpretty Rapstar delivered a live stage performance of the two groups, minus Jessi and Ji Dam. The video and sound quality were poor, especially for the first group, and the producers constantly interrupted the performance with the interviews recorded afterwards. This helped to mask just how short and unspectacular they were. But come on, how could we expect quality music when the crews for this episode were chosen not based on chemistry but on how non-threatening Kisum and Lil Cham appeared to Jimin? When the winning group was chosen by the audience, it was Tymee who summed it up nicely this time: “Is it because they had Jimin? Ugh, men.”
But after two episodes, there was a saving grace. In the solo performance, Kisum, Jimin, and Jidam all performed well, delivering hard-hitting raps with fresh lyrics. Was it too little, too late, though? Two hours of TV for three minutes of rap? I’ll wait for the compilation album.
Unpretty Rapstar promised a high-octane female rap competition. Instead, it delivers mostly subpar rap music, needless drama, and reaffirms the view that women should be evaluated first and foremost by their looks. Had the producers wanted these eight women to succeed as rappers, they would have given them the resources and stage to do so. If you like shows that often get “ugly,” this one might be for you.
Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.