Fans had mixed emotions upon the announcement for Mnet‘s Unpretty Rapstar, and it was mainly due to the title. What exactly was the aim of a female rap competition show labeled as “unpretty”? Would this be more jabs at females in a male-dominated genre that is known for its unapologetic misogyny? Thankfully, the jabs didn’t come from digs about one’s appearance often, but things did get a bit ugly — and it was beautiful.
The show is a spin-off of Show Me the Money (SMTM), which takes underground and idol rappers and pits them in a no-holds-barred battle of the MCs. There are a number of talented female rappers in the game, but one wouldn’t know it if SMTM was the only outlet for them. That is probably what enticed the producers to create this show. Everyone can name several male rappers, but who are the truly baddest females spitting rhymes?
To find the answer to that question, eight female rappers were invited to participate in Unpretty Rapstar. The chilly winter insert shots provide us a fitting background for our introduction to Cheetah. Her expression is colder than the weather as she expresses regret at doing poorly in the first season of SMTM. Next to arrive is Lil Cham, a rapper who enjoys writing risque lyrics. There’s more to say on her, but let’s save that for later.
As the ladies sit in awkward silence, in comes the next arrival, AOA‘s Jimin. Jimin picks up on the hate right away as Cheetah and Lil Cham both sigh at her appearance. Apparently, this prejudice is premature since Jimin writes her own raps, contradicting the stereotype that idol rappers possess zero talents. Her entrance is followed by Sulli-lookalike Kisum from SMTM3. Next to join them is Jolly V, known for her ongoing diss battle with Tymee, another SMTM alum that joins the group. Rounding out the cast are high school student Yuk Ji-dam and Lucky J‘s Jessi.
Off the bat, the tension between rap rivals Jolly V and Tymee is heightened by Jessi’s questions regarding their relationship. That tension breaks with the arrival of San E, the show’s host. He manages to offend the other contestants upon commenting that Jimin is a pretty rap star. Adding more awkwardness to the situation, he proceeds to ask Jimin why she’s there. Jimin responds that she hopes to learn how to be a better rapper. It’s at this point that San E gives them their first challenge: an impromptu cypher.
Through these cyphers, everyone sizes up their competition, and it’s an interesting mix. Tymee wastes no time throwing a diss towards Jolly V who spits one right back at her. Yuk Ji-dam and Cheetah deliver solid lyrics while poor Jimin fumbles through hers, prompting Lil Cham to throw a diss at her during her turn. Kisum and Jessi finish off the cypher with their killer charisma. In the end, Jimin feels the bitter judgment of the other rappers who target her as the weakest one.
The introduction cyphers are just a warm-up to the first mission for a music video. Jimin redeems herself by showing off her experience in shooting a one-shot MV, but the mistakes of the other rappers make Jessi impatient as one of the last rappers to film. This costs her a chance to participate in the following challenge as the others vote her as the worst rapper in the video. On the other hand, Jimin gets a surprising win over Cheetah and is given the advantage of choosing her team for the next mission.
In the second episode, San E explains to Jimin that if her team wins, they’ll compete in a rap battle against each other for a special prize: a track produced by Zico. Jimin chooses Kisum and Lil Cham, leaving the remaining four to be the other team. They collaborate for another cypher mission and perform it in front of a crowd at a club, but Yuk Ji-dam must sit out because she’s under-aged. Jimin’s team wins the mission, but Yuk Ji-dam ends up competing for the track also because Zico liked what he saw during rehearsals.
Now, here is where things get a bit ugly. Before the final four reveal their raps, Jessi returns with a mission of her own. She disses her competitors, reminding them that “We’re not a team.” Once that’s over, the final four spit their bars, and Yuk Ji-dam wins. The compliments everyone gives her on her lyrical skills causes the teenager to get a bit emotional. Despite her age, the rappers recognize her powerful potential.
The third episode begins with the rappers enjoying a meal with San E, but of course, it comes with a side dish of another mission. This time they must write lyrics to one of two Verbal Jint-produced tracks and work with either 2am‘s Seulong or MIB‘s Kangnam. Jessi finds amusement in the changing attitudes of the rappers who check their makeup before the singers enter. The rappers are then instructed to choose a room for the song they want. Seulong gets Jimin, Jolly V and Tymee while Kangnam gets the rest. Although Kangnam mentions his fear of Jessi, he quickly changes his mind when she unleashes a rousing performance. Despite Verbal Jint pushing for Yuk Ji-dam, Jessi ends up joining Cheetah to compete for Kangnam’s track.
Both MCs emit explosive charisma onstage with Kangnam, yet only one can feature with him for the track. Extra points are given to Cheetah for her aggressive rap which wins her the track, but Verbal Jint drops a surprise — Jessi wins too. Their chemistry was so good that the judges thought they both belonged on the track. The episode ends with the rappers congratulating each other with a hug.
Here are some of my final thoughts on the beginning episodes of Unpretty Rapstar: Firstly, Lil Cham is a mess. She is simply terrible; in fact, her bad rapping has generated enough criticism to possibly inspire a rule change that will have one of the rappers replaced by Jace of Miss $. Previews for episode four reveal an epic rap battle that will result in a permanent elimination for one of the eight MCs. My money is on Lil Cham getting axed, but given that Jessi scares the hell out of the other rappers and overuses English in her raps, she is another potential contender for the chopping block.
As for front runners, I’m not counting Jessi out completely, but she faces serious competition from Cheetah who seems to be one step ahead of everyone in the challenges. Another one to consider is Yuk Ji-dam who possesses some slick lyrical skills. Never underestimate the determination of an MC burned on SMTM. She took the criticism she received from appearing on that show to heart and used it to improve her skills. Jimin is doing better than expected, but she’s swimming in the middle. Idol popularity only helps her win crowd-based challenges, but when judged against the other rappers, her weaknesses show.
So far, Unpretty Rapstar doesn’t disappoint thanks to a selection of strong rappers. If there is a criticism to be given at this stage, it’s the lack of female mentors. From deciding who features on the album to who produces the tracks, it’s all male artists. Where’s Gilme or Yoon Mi-rae? Lena Park? LE of EXID? It’s just disappointing to see how male-dominated the industry is, especially when this show could be a platform to encourage more females to take on roles behind the scenes beyond that of stylist. At least, the female rappers are gaining more respect for their skills than their looks, so hopefully this leads to more shows that continue this positive message of valuing talents over a pretty face.