by Raizel Liebler & Keidra Chaney
You really should watch Unpretty Rapstar 2, a reality competition show from Korea about aspiring women rappers. Seriously. We will be upfront — neither of us likes the winner, but the show includes awesome prepared and off-the-cuff raps and also explains so much about the Korean music industry. The show (which we are abbreviating as UR2) is officially licensed by Dramafever, with English subtitles.
Much of the show will be familiar in part to any one who has watched music reality shows, such as American Idol and The Voice, but thankfully, neither the unending background stories or true eliminations occur. Yes, all of the rappers are in the final round — and the show picks up additional contestants during the show.
The format makes sense, though it really isn’t described with the show: The purpose of the show is to create an album, where the participants compete in weekly battles to see who will be featured on each track — produced/written by important Korean rap/hip-hop producers. One of the most interesting aspects of this show is that all of the raps are written by the contestants — for the featured song, in rap battles, though occasionally in teams. Frequently seeing the writing process before the performers drop their verses helps to show the level of creativity needed to participate.
The pacing is a bit odd, even for Korean television standards, with episodes that can be over an hour long. But the oddest aspect of the show is the editing, which can lead to multiple recaps within one episode, and can also show parts of the same challenge over more than one episode.
It’s hip hop man, this is hip hop
Yes, Korean rap is actually rap — and this show proves it. Many of the rap battles between the contestants demonstrate their skills, including attitude, flow, rhyming, and just general smack talking.
But we do need to talk about Truedy, who is technically pretty talented but had one of the more annoying personalities witnessed on TV, even for a reality show. Moreover, her personal fixation on mimicking both Korean rapper/singer Yoonmirae and “old school” black hip-hop artists of the 80’s and 90’s was discomforting and creepy – and occasionally bordered on minstrelsy in a way she didn’t the self-awareness or historical context to recognize. Either way it was weird, annoying and fairly creepy.
Girl Group Rapper v. Underground rapper:
What are the “roles” for women in the Korean music industry
One of the most interesting dynamics of the show is how generally there are two groups of rappers — the underground rappers, where UR2 is their first chance to interact with the general public and those that already have some interaction with the highly structured Korean music industry.
Both of us were (mostly) surprised that we liked those who are presently in girl groups the best (though to varying degrees — and differing over the course of the show). These artists, Hyorin (from Sistar), Yubin (from Wonder Girls), Yezi “Crazy Dog” (from FIESTAR) and Jiyoon (from 4minute) have years of training as trainees before joining their respective group, then years of performing. All of them responded well to criticism, were able to memorize their verses quickly and were able to bounce back more quickly from mistakes on stage. And while several of the underground rappers were technically better, such as KittiB, those in girl groups knew how to work a crowd.
Yezi “Crazy Dog” is an especially interesting case because she has qualities of an underground rapper, yet because she is from a mostly unknown girl group, she was an “unknown idol” But she also had a entire rap based around her being a “Crazy Dog” — and that performance plus others made her our favorite. Her stuff is just catchy. Additionally, her semi-final performance song has charted higher than any of the other semi-final and final songs.
While members of boy idol groups, like G-Dragon from BigBang, are lauded for their creative efforts — there aren’t similar examples of “singular talent” from girl groups. For example, Yubin learned how to play drums for the latest Wonder Girls album, but otherwise has been limited to doing the rap bridge.
But all of the girl group rappers are in a bind. While they already in the music industry, the type of music that they perform is limited by their label/management company. They aren’t allowed to be creative musically or lyrically in ways that they might prefer — and for that reason, all four of the girl group members produced songs during UR2 that were especially aggro/sexy — or in one case, a drunken party banger. This was their one opportunity to truly prove what kind of music they are capable of creating on their own. And if you watch the show, you will see how throughout their verses, they talk back to their labels — and the lack of control over their careers.
Overall: We recommend several of the rappers from UR2, ranging from underground through more commercial: KittiB, Yezi, and Yubin. Our favorite song of the semi-finals was surprisingly from Jiyoon, whose song (to us) was the most likely to become popular outside of Korea.
But should she ever leave SISTAR, Hyorin has the star quality, plus the rap and singing skills, to possibly make a worldwide debut. Though both of us are still rooting for CL to be the first breakthrough Korean rap star in the United States! (Though Tasha (Yoonmirae) will always be the Korean rap queen.)
But mostly, we do recommend the show. Despite its tendency to drag out elimination episodes to an excruciating length, repeat scenes over again, and occasionally show them out of order or context to the point that you may think you’ve blacked out while watching it, the structure of the show and the concept is so refreshing. A US version of Unpretty Rapstar could maybe work in the US but would probably play out so much differently for a number of complex reasons involving race, gender the US music industry, and the history of hip-hop in it. Just… exhales whoo. Yeah… it would just be different. Still we’d like to see it.