Less than nine months after the previous season of Mnet’s Show Me The Money crowned Korean-American rapper Nafla its winner, the long-running rap competition is back for its eighth season, with the first episode airing in late July. The show has been making and breaking Korean homegrown rap stars since its inception in 2012; seven years and approximately 70 episodes later, the survival programme still shows no sign of stopping.

If you’re unfamiliar with the show, Show Me The Money (SMTM) is a programme produced by Mnet (responsible for Produce 101 and High School Rapper) which pits thousands of wannabe rappers against each other in a merciless competition to find the “best” rapper of them all. While rap ability is its main criterion, for the contestants it’s just as much an exercise in songwriting, performance charisma, and general PR as it is rap prowess. To win the show, you not only need to show your rap skills in the early rounds, but also ample hit-making ability in the later rounds where you work with producers to write original songs. Finally, a good amount of likeability and charisma will tip public votes in your favour when the final rounds decide an overall winner.

The show has returned every year without fail since it first capitalised on the rising hip-hop trend in 2012, becoming almost a rite of passage for up-and-coming talents to break into mainstream success. Over the years, the number of auditioning contestants has ballooned, from less than 2,000 in the initial seasons to over 16,000 in the latest. While it seems like every single rapper in Korea has been on the show now, it’s a credit to the still-burgeoning local hip-hop scene that fresh blood continues to reveal itself on shows like SMTM. Eight seasons in, this has become the only thing keeping the show from descending into déjà vu.

While SMTM777 shook things up with new rules and gimmicks, SMTM8 has unfortunately not maintained the same vibe of energy and revitalisation. The main shake-up has been the division of teams; instead of judges pairing up, this year’s roster has been split into two “crews” who will battle each other for the winner’s title. 40 Crew consists of familiar faces Swings, Mad Clown, Kid Milli and baby-faced producer Boycold, while the opposing BGM-v Crew consists of Verbal Jint, Giriboy, SMTM5 winner BewhY and Fanxy Child producer Millic.

Perhaps the reduced break between seasons (SMTM777 aired in September last year) has contributed to this sense of ennui. In any case, the show has lost some of its dynamism, with eliminations having very little tension or suspense. At times the pacing has felt rushed and the editing strange, especially when contestants who have had no screen-time early on suddenly appear later. Familiar faces from SMTM777 (such as YunB and Slick O’domar, who established themselves as memorable characters last year) popping up only several episodes in is particularly disorienting, as it completely disregards last season’s narrative.

That said, the excessive number of reapplicants itself has not helped the show stay interesting. Many of the contestants, including Olltii, Woodie Go Child and Zene The Zilla, have appeared on the show at least once before. Perhaps because of BewhY’s compelling narrative (in which he was eliminated in Season 4 but came storming back to win Season 5), as well as the redemption arc of troublemaker-turned-saint Superbee, contestants are enthusiastically reapplying in the hopes of winning over the public second, third or (in one person’s case) eighth time around. What they fail to recognise, however, is that BewhY’s and Superbee’s narratives were based on their transformations into unique characters with undeniable skills; without skills on par with theirs, the public will merely tire of seeing the same faces every year.  

Still, that’s not to say that these rappers are untalented. Returning contestants who stand a chance of repeating BewhY’s narrative include SMTM777 dark horse EK and SMTM6 contestants Punchnello and Young B. All three are rappers at the top of their game who are back with a vengeance and expected to reach the finals, if not win. Young B in particular has performed extremely stably, exuding a cool confidence bordering on arrogance that’s helped him breeze through the show as if it were a game.

While having well-known rappers is a guaranteed way of attracting viewers, the real lifeblood of the show is the discovery of diamonds in the rough. More than ever, having fresh blood has been vital to keeping the show interesting and its premise exciting. The idea that anyone can become a national rap star overnight is what keeps young, old, established and unknown rappers alike applying and reapplying to the show; this year is no exception.

This is likely the reason that Mnet has been ignoring less popular reapplicants in favour of spotlighting unknown talents. Fresh faces who have caught the eye and ear of the judges include high schooler Seo Dong-hyun a.k.a Big Naughty, Busan-raised Jjangyou and Lil Boi lookalike Ahn Byung-woong. Big Naughty especially has gained fans (including guest-judge-turned-fanboy Crush) for his smooth, husky voice and melodic sing-song rap, bringing a genuinely unique and refreshing style to the competition. Similarly, Ahn Byung-woong has garnered attention for his slick rap flow and distinctive tone, showing strong 90’s hip-hop influences despite being a teenager.

It’s talents like these that have kept the first four episodes of this year’s season interesting, hooking viewers like myself as the show pits new and exciting unknowns against well-established veterans. While the editing and format have left something to be desired, the show may yet get into its stride as the contestants filter down to the elite. As for the competition itself, the overall winner is still far from decided, and the likes of Young B, EK, and Punchnello would do well to stay on their toes.

(YouTube [1]. Images via Mnet.)