I often find myself ambivalent about Kpop. Sure there are loads of artists I enjoy and keep up with and songs that are on my iPod but often I don’t participate in the fandom. In fact, I find Kpop fandom to be completely insane half the time and do my best not to engage.
Part of my issue with the industry is that there’s a strong emphasis on females being absolutely perfect and demure. With South Korea boasting some of the highest rates of plastic surgery in the world, sometimes you want something more real and more dirty. Less of the cutesy youthful long legged wonders of idol girl groups but a bad bitch trying to carve her way in the world, unafraid.
It wouldn’t be right of me to write an article talking about females in Korean hip-hop without laying out the state of affairs. Every kpop group, male and female, tends to have someone who occupies the position of rapper in the group. These rappers tend to have a verse or bridge in a title song and often aren’t very good. So rappers wishing to make it big have a choice of either joining an idol group or doing the slow grind as a member of the underground scene. There are very few options in between, especially for women. The last solo female rapper who made it big was Tasha aka Yoon Mi-rae, whose story of being half black and half Korean made for a great overcoming the odds narrative. Her song Black Happiness struck a chord with girls who didn’t fit with societal ideals of beauty.
Enter Unpretty Rapstar. Unpretty Rapstar answers a gap in the market that I fell for, hook line and sinker. It is a survival rap competition by Mnet with talented female rappers vying for the opportunity to show their skills on tracks done by some of Korea’s finest hip hop producers. The concept is similar to Mnet’s other show Show Me The Money and in fact, some of the contestants had previously auditioned and been unsuccessful in Show Me The Money.
This is not to say that Unpretty Rapstar is real in any way. It’s a reality TV show, so it’s scripted to hell and back but it’s the great kind of unreality I like so I will give it and it’s weirdly named title a pass. The logic behind the name Unpretty Rapstar was that instead of focusing on the looks of these women, we’re encouraged to look at their swagger and to listen to them. These were girls who were actively going against the grain by not being… pretty? And here’s where it gets slightly baffling, as I find nearly every contestant pretty in a way that is real. They’re closer to the reality of girls who exist in the real world rather than the glitzy world of showbiz. Hence why they’re unpretty? Or something?
Either way, Unpretty Rapstar had a great premise and being a relatively short series with 8 episodes, I binged watched the entire thing in one go. I had no regrets in doing so.
The contestants are a mix of underground rappers, music industry veterans and previous Show Me The Money contestants. Cheetah, Tymee and JollyV were all names in underground hip hop. Jessi and Jimin were pros in the business; Jessi being a member of Lucky J and having been active since 2005 while Jimin was the leader of AOA, arguably one of the most popular groups in Kpop at the moment. Meanwhile Lilcham, Yuk Jidam and Kisum were looking for a chance to prove themselves on reality TV again, having failed the first time round on the largely male dominated Show Me The Money.
The claws come out early, with the girls judging each other as they discover the competition and introduce themselves to each other. The judging gets worse when they all show off their skills in rap on the spot. It’s catty, sassy and there are some catchy tunes.
The Introduction Cypher Featuring The Ladies of Unpretty Rapstar
Not only is the drama rife from the get go, but there are team challenges and diss battles a plenty. While it’s produced and scripted to a certain degree, there’s still an organic feel to the whole thing. We see Jimin, the idol contestant deal with being dismissed right off the bat and crying in the confessional interviews, desperate to prove that she’s not just a pretty dancing singing doll. Jessi is hoping to revive her career to keep doing the thing she loves and she does so in a blisteringly honest fashion, cutting down anyone who dares to challenge her. JollyV and Tymee’s feud from the real world carrying over into the show. Cheetah’s quiet tenacity, wisdom and spectacular eyeliner. Yuk Jidam wanting to show that her age is no barrier to some sick rhymes. Kisum and Lilcham wanting to prove that they had soul rather than just being pretty faces. Meanwhile host and veteran rapper San E serves as the anchor, instigator and comic relief between all the drama – skilfully delivering the challenge details and critiquing the girls with a hint of mischief to him.
The skill levels between the girls are pretty variable but that’s just par for the course. Lilcham’s lack of confidence in her rhymes means that she gets the boot and is eventually replaced by Jace from Miss $ (???), who is similarly dreadful. JollyV only lasts until the end not because she does well, but she does just enough to remain out of trouble. Yuk Jidam writes like a teenager, with metaphors of a teenager but spits them out with such ferocity that I want to see her in 5 years time with more experience. Jimin’s lyrics are weak but her delivery stands out. Jessi is just a threat all round, but uses far too much English for a Korean based audience. Cheetah just assassinates all round while Tymee struggles to keep her emotions and a professional face on while rapping. I felt for these girls. I wanted to root for all of them, but there were some that I felt myself drawn to more than others.
This all culminates of course, with a pretty great compilation at the end of it. My advice would be to not listen to it if you’re thinking of watching the show as every track has a story behind it.
The success of Unpretty Rapstar has led to Volume 2, a second season being produced. All the girls are now more recognizable then they have been ever before. It’s a great story of females doing well and succeeding on their own terms, with some crazy catchy tunes coming out of it. If you’re in the market for some reality tv, then Unpretty Rapstar fits the bill quite easily.