Despite its poor performance last year, Mnet’s flagship hip-hop competition show Show Me The Money is back for a ninth season, which began airing in September. Even in the face of waning interest and coronavirus restrictions, it seems that they are determined to make it to a ten-year anniversary, and to that end, Mnet has pumped resources into the show even as other headliners were cancelled. This year’s grand prize is the biggest ever, with not only the usual ₩100,000,000 in cash plus a sports car, but a one-year project label specifically designed to support the winner’s music activities, up to ₩500,000,000 (approximately $450,000).

Luckily for the aging show, this season so far has improved considerably upon the last, if only because of a higher average standard of performances from the contestants. The line-up of auditionees was already more star-studded, with names including SMTM4 underdog Lil Boi and ex-winner-slash-judge Swings garnering plenty of anticipation even before the first episode. Just like last year, they received more applications than ever before, but due to social distancing restrictions, only a small number of the 23,000 who sent in video auditions could attend the first preliminary round with the judges.

The silver lining of this was that it saved viewers from having to sit through the usual first round, where hundreds of rappers gather in a room to rap short acapella verses while the judges do the unenviable job of separating the wheat from the chaff. While they have occasionally discovered unknown dark horses this way, the last few seasons have increasingly been filled with cringey antics from wannabe rappers in garish fashion, each desperately trying to outdo each other with whatever crazy gimmicks will get them noticed.

Eliminating these cringe-fests has ensured a decent level of performances from the get-go, allowing audiences to quickly spot the standout talents and potential winners while giving them more opportunities (i.e. screen-time) to shine. On the judging side, this year’s teams include familiar faces Dynamic Duo and Bewhy, Paloalto and Code Kunst, Zion.T and Giriboy, plus well-respected rapper Justhis who is teamed up with producing duo GroovyRoom. While the first three teams offer up some much-needed light humour and banter, Justhis gives us impressively sharp and insightful critique, accurately and precisely pointing out specific weaknesses in rappers’ performances in a way that can actually help them improve.

All of this has come together to produce more than a few enjoyable moments, and if you like Korean hip-hop and have nothing better to watch while stuck at home, then you could do worse than Show Me The Money 9. If you haven’t been keeping up with the season so far, here are some of the best moments from the first half, along with our choices of the ones to keep an eye on:

1. D.Ark

Multilingual rap wunderkind D.Ark, who previously appeared on SMTM777 when he was just 15 in Korean age, returned after two years, which he spent quietly after a scandal involving an older ex-girlfriend. In contrast to his spunky, even arrogant confidence on SMTM777, the subsequent tide of criticism from netizens appeared to take its toll on his performance ability, and he was eliminated after forgetting his lyrics twice on stage. His first-round verse showcased a more mature and reflective manner though, and while his style lost some of its energy and distinctiveness, the boy is young and talented enough to still have a very bright future ahead.

2. Ahn Byung-woong

Another teenage talent, Ahn Byung-woong previously appeared on SMTM8 as a complete unknown, before rapidly gaining attention for his unique flow and old-school boom-bap style. He recently released his first EP, and while he experiments with a number of interesting styles on it, he rarely sounds as good as he does simply acapella, bobbing his head and grooving to his own rhythm, as he does on his first-round performance.

3. Mushvenom

Rapper Mushvenom has one of the most novel and unique styles here, with a sing-song, salesman tone that makes it sound like he’s trying to sell you fresh watermelons from a street stall somewhere in Asia. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have skills though, and his witty lyrics, entertaining flow, and unflappable personality have helped him fly through each round so far, with the judges singing nothing but praises. While it’s too early to say if he’s a potential winner, as a fan favourite he’ll certainly be tough competition for any opponent in the rounds ahead.

4. Wonstein

Despite having previously appeared on three seasons of the show, this might as well be rapper Wonstein’s first attempt for all the impression he left. Having failed to make the cut for team selection each time, he has somehow turned his luck around to sail through each stage of this year’s competition, charming judges with his refreshing style, melodic tone, and great musicality. His case is proof that if you stick at it long enough, your time will come, and while his path to the final is pretty clear, his talent and ear for music are so good that it’s doubtful he needs to win in order to make his mark on the industry in future.

5. Swings

Fans of the show will almost certainly be familiar with Swings, winner of SMTM2 and judge on several occasions afterwards. His participation in the show caused quite a stir, with some netizens initially criticising him for stealing attention from lesser-known artists that need the exposure more. In the second round, Swings finally explained his reason for appearing; after making some judging decisions that netizens didn’t agree with, they criticised his abilities as a rapper, saying that he wouldn’t pass the 60-second evaluation round, even though he has spent years working at the top level of Korean hip-hop. Here to regain his pride and recognition as a veteran rapper, Swings puts everything on the line with every performance; his fierce 60-second verse, where he tosses the mic and bellows the last part acapella, deserves to earn back every bit of respect from netizens lost over the years.

6. Lil Boi

Finally, we have Lil Boi, member of rap duo Geeks and a popular choice for this year’s winner. He last appeared in SMTM4, where he was unfortunately eliminated in a face-off with none other than Bewhy, winner of SMTM5 and one of this year’s judges. This time, he has had a lot more skill and luck, sailing through each round with ease and widely hailed by judges and contestants alike as the one to beat. He mixes sharp lyrics and exquisite rhymes with punchy, powerful delivery, helping his verses hit home even though his vocal tone is high and his general manner soft, quiet, and meek. His first-round acapella performance shows us that, despite his gentle exterior, he is not here to be pushed around, while his third-round team performance with Wonstein and Chillin Homie gives us a little taste of what is yet to come.

While we’ve picked some of the best highlights so far, there are plenty of skilled contestants with styles to suit all tastes, so interested readers should watch the show for themselves. As ever, fresh talent and quality performances are what make this show enjoyable, and the more the format helps deliver this, the better the season tends to be. SMTM8 may not have ascended into the show’s hall of classics yet, but neither is it descending towards the pit of Mnet’s many low moments and with strong producing teams and plenty of talent to spare, the second half may bring us the best moments yet.

(YouTube [1]. Images via Mnet.)