Mnet’s annual rap competition Show Me The Money is back, airing from September 7th until sometime in November. Having produced more than a few rap stars and chart-topping songs over the last six years, Mnet have revamped the competition’s structure in an attempt to keep the show, now in its seventh season, fresh and relevant in a music scene overflowing with rappers and hip hop acts. Ambitiously named Show Me The Money 777, it remains to be seen whether this season will hit the jackpot or not.

Judging this year are teams The Quiett and Changmo, Swings and Giriboy, Paloalto and Code Kunst and Nucksal and Deepflow. While the line-up is notably less star-studded compared to last year’s, which featured veterans and household names Dynamic Duo, Zico and Tiger JK among others, this year’s roster seems to lean towards a trendier and more experimental sound – one that is more reflective of modern hip hop.

It’s not clear yet how the competition will work in the later rounds, but so far Mnet’s new rules have switched several things up to keep even long-time viewers of the show interested. Unlike previous years, this season has skipped showing the preliminary qualifier round, where the judges walk around a room filled with thousands of wannabe rappers, listening to their elevator pitch rap verses. Instead, the show starts from Round 2, where rappers have one minute to perform a song in front of the judges who either pass or fail them (four fails means elimination and a humiliating descent into a literal pit of flames).

Unfortunately, this means viewers have no context for the faces they see on the screen, and it feels much less like individual characters’ stories unfolding — something Mnet usually emphasises. The preliminary round was also one of the more entertaining rounds, revealing the contestants’ true skill and showmanship when stripped of a stage and backing track and giving viewers the chance to “discover” unknown gems, such as last year’s dark horse and third place runner-up, Woo Won-Jae.

Still, the show has made up for it with a host of new gimmicks aimed at making the competition more intense. Rappers passing Round 2 are given valuations between 100,000 and 5 million won by each judging team, who have a budget and can bet money on their favourite rappers. Effectively a numeric scoring system, the best rappers earn the most money, giving them various advantages.

Round 3 pits them against each other in the familiar one-on-one battle – except now a total of three rappers can join the fray, with the winner taking all the money from his opponents. Then, in Round 4, the remaining 24 contestants split into two teams and send out a rapper for each of a series of beats in a cypher-like battle, with the winning team splitting 50 million won between them. Finally, with only the cream of the crop left, the judges each put on a performance in order to try and appeal to the contestants, who then choose and join their preferred team, before beginning to perform and compete through original songs.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Five episodes in, it’s still not clear what the significance of the betting system is, beyond a simple numeric score. Still, the range of challenges presented to the rappers and the impressive skill with which they have risen to them have made the show more than entertaining enough; the group battle, in particular, has been a highlight of the season so far and indeed the last few seasons combined.

In case you haven’t had time to check it out, here’s a list of highlights from the show so far (generously subbed in English by Mnet):

1. Nafla and Kid Milli

Every year a few big names in the world of Korean rap appear in the SMTM auditions and quickly gain traction as the favourites to win, and this year is no exception. Featured on songs by Dynamic Duo, Heize and Henry among others, Korean-American rapper Nafla has made a name for himself and arrives at SMTM as one of the more well-known and highly anticipated contestants. His second-round performance justifies that expectation, with great flow, lyrics and stage presence. His rival, Kid Milli, is a rising rookie rapper known for his unusual flow and off-kilter style, demonstrated here in his one-minute performance:

2. Middle School Rapper

With SMTM having been around for over six years and with the general rise in popularity of hip hop and trap, it’s no surprise that there are now teenagers who have been immersed in hip hop from a young enough age that they are rapping like pros before they even qualify for High School Rapper. That’s the case with middle school rappers D.Ark and Choi Eun-Seo, both fifteen in Korean age and repping the younger young generation with rap performances and lyric-writing skills that are not to be sniffed at.

3. Mommy Son

There are always a few eccentric characters appearing on SMTM, but this year there seems to be more than usual. Taking the cake is Mommy Son, the mysterious rapper with his identity hidden by a pink balaclava (referencing the Korean rubber glove brand Mamison). Viewers have speculated that it is in fact rapper and previous SMTM judge Mad Clown in disguise, but he has firmly denied it – we’ll let you decide what you think. Unfortunately, Mommy Son forgot his lyrics in the second round and was eliminated and lowered into the pit of flames, but his subsequent diss track and MV, “Shonen Jump”, has earned more YouTube views than probably any SMTM video ever, so we reckon it’s a tie.

4. The Return of Superbee

If you’ve been following the show at any point in the last few years, chances are you know of Superbee. Having participated in two seasons previously and reaching the finals in one, Superbee returns with upgraded skills to earn the recognition of the Korean public and clear his reputation as a mischievous troublemaker, known for antics such as travelling all the way to the US just to audition as a “Korean-American” rapper. If his appearances so far are anything to go by, he’ll likely meet with success; the old Superbee was a good rapper and entertaining character but lacked maturity and likeability, while the new Superbee is a great rapper who seems calm, collected and confident. With his familiarity and the steadily warming sentiment held towards him by SMTM audiences, he may yet become a strong contender for the winner’s title.

5. Group Battle

The only completely new segment so far, the group battle split the final 24 rappers into two teams, pitting them against each other over a series of iconic beats in the course of three rounds. Far and away, this has been the best episode of the whole show; despite it being a battle, both teams made sure to have fun on stage and bring out their best man for each beat, resulting in some really interesting matchups and high-quality performances across the board. It was so good that (spoiler) the judges decided not to eliminate anyone, stating that everyone performed too well and that it would be meaningless to eliminate anybody. That’s the first time this has happened in the history of SMTM, and it’s a testament to the sheer quality of rap and performance this segment created; if you only watch one episode from the show, make it this.

Overall, Show Me The Money 777 has been surprisingly entertaining for the seventh season of a fairly formulaic show. For the most part, Mnet’s gamble with new rules and segments has paid off, and we’ve yet to see what surprises they may still have in store for later episodes. Notably, this season seems to have focused much less on playing up drama and bad blood, instead spending its screentime on showcasing the best rap and performances from its many talented contestants. It’s almost uncharacteristically positive (dare I say, wholesome) and hopefully it’ll stay that way; we’re only halfway through the competition, and for the contestants and Mnet, there’s still all to play for.

(YouTube. Images via Mnet.)