Category Archives: Unpretty Rapstar

Unpacking the meaning of a rap

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Jolly V saw a Tweet from the person doing the English subs for Unpretty Rapstar, which contained these photos:

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Jolly V is bilingual, and she felt that the translation was way too simplistic (in particular, she felt it made the rap sound cruder than it was), so she posted a lengthy unpacking of the rap’s meaning.

This isn’t the first time this has happened: AllKPop did an entire article about a single line of Jimin’s rap to Zico.

Something to keep in mind: Translations are always approximate. You can’t avoid that. And subtitles are even more approximate because they have to be short. 

That works badly with the word play and references typical of good raps. I mean, imagine trying to translate something like

Ward, I think you were a little hard on the Beaver
So was Eddie Haskal, Wally, and Ms. Cleaver

into Korean. First you’d have to explain what Leave It to Beaver was, and who those people are. Then you’d have to explain that, “Ward, I think you were a little hard on the Beaver” was already a joke, and why. Then you’d have to get into the fact that Eminem was extending the joke…oh, and you have maybe 30 words to do it all in, because people can’t read that fast.

As a non-Korean speaker, you’re always missing something. Always. And sometimes you’re missing a hell of a lot.

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What are contests actually good for?

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One of the frustrations people are having with Unpretty Rapstar is that it’s not truly what you would call a rap competition–it’s not about finding the person who can rap the best according to some empiric musical standard.

But, as anyone who has watched them can tell you, shows and other competitions like this are rarely (if ever) about what makes a person the best whatever. And this is not simply a phenomenon you see in reality TV shows (although the need to keep popular characters on the show for the sake of ratings is a factor that’s unique to the genre)–it’s true of any competition once you get outside the realm of academia.

Why is this? Because the people judging the competition are typically professionals–they make a living doing whatever it is they are judging. And they are going to look at factors that will affect how commercially successful something will be. Those factors are varied, and many of them have nothing to do with talent.

Take last week’s Unpretty Rapstar (all translations by unprettty rapstar). Who did the delightfully uninhibited Kangnam (from MIB) want on his song?

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He changed his mind once he figured out that Jessi was a whole lot more likely to spank him.

And what about the venerable Verbal Jint?

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Revolutionized Korean rap, has an economics degree, and is currently attending law school. Still hasn’t figured out how to dress.

Note that neither one is saying, “Give me the best rapper you’ve got!” Neither one wants to waste their time working on a song that isn’t going to sell.

They wound up giving the win to both Cheetah and Jessi, which seems absurd. From a rap perspective, Jessi is nowhere near Cheetah. Jessi has been getting a free pass for her truly horrible rapping because she’s mostly using English. No one on the show (except, I suspect, Verbal Jint) seems aware of the fact that she says, in this performance alone, “What I need a man a big baller,” “dude a big shaller,” “stellian” (earlier in the show it was “shallion”), and “let me see what you pawking”–all stuff the show would call out in a heartbeat were she speaking Korean.

But hey, she’s a good performer, she brings an existing fan base, and look what happens when Verbal Jint gets to work on her:

Her voice is much softer, her lines end in a sexy little moan, and she actually enunciates. (This is what it sounds like when a producer doesn’t modulate her voice–it just doesn’t fit the song at all. And she rhymes “lasted” with “everlasting.” Park Kyung hits people for that kind of shit.)

And the song has done just dandy!

Now, obviously the fact that two of the competitors already have fan bases and are far more marketable affects the competition aspect of the show (if Jimin actually has to compete for her single next episode, I will be very surprised). It skews the judging in a way that is very predictable (although I will say that the show is managing to deliver plenty of entertainment anyway). I mean, if you thought Jimin had terrible stagecraft on the Seulong song, why would you give her the win? Given all her experience, she should be judged the hardest for failing.

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Ah, that. Plus you can assume that, since Jimin is such an experienced professional, she will pull something out for the upcoming performance–no guarantees that Jolly V or Tymee could do the same.

So, is my point, “Oh, this is soooooooo unfair”? No. I don’t even know what would constitute “fair” in the context of a reality show: In any context, “fair” always seems to depend on whose ox is being gored. Would it be fair to Verbal Jint and Kangnam to saddle them with someone less marketable? (Well, Kangnam probably wouldn’t mind being saddled….) It is fair to give a single to someone who raps well in the studio but is a dead fish onstage? Verbal Jint can fix what you do in the studio, but he can’t fix what you do onstage.

My point is, there’s a tremendous difference between being a professional and being an amateur, no matter how talented the amateur. You might think that the best singer is the person with the best voice, but the best professional singer has a voice that doesn’t break down after a gazillion performances, can handle being onstage in a variety of environments, sings in a popular genre, etc. Likewise a fantastic prose stylist who can’t spell, use correct grammar, meet deadlines, or write to length is not a writer many people want to hire. And, as Jessi demonstrates, as a professional you work with other people who are as or more talented than you are, making your raw talent less important.

Nobody–not even reality-show audiences–freaks out about this more than people who are transitioning from being an amateur or student in the arts to being a professional. Suddenly your connection to the Muse is so much less important than your ability to dress appropriately and show up on time. But the smart move is to figure out what’s expected in this new environment and see if you have it in you to deliver it.

Remember, it’s not WHAT you measure, it’s HOW you measure

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You are a producer with the show Unpretty Rapstar, a hip-hop competition featuring female rappers that is affiliated with Show Me the Money. On your show, one of the contestants is a high-school student named Yuk Ji Dam. She has an uncle or grandparent or someone high enough in your organization to fire you if he or she is displeased—and this person will be displeased if Yuk Ji Dam does not at least make a decent showing.

Five (or maybe more) of your eight contestants will win the opportunity to appear on an album put out by the show. (No, you can’t have a nicer prize than that–the world of Korean hip-hop is just too small: Even your host has appeared on some extremely provocative tracks with one of your contestants.) So, “a decent showing” is going to involve this Yuk Ji Dam gal winning at least one episode.

How do you make this happen without resorting to such crass (and illegal, and obvious to Yuk Ji Dam AND her wealthy relative) tactics such as bribery?

Easy! Remember, there’s no need to stoop to the crass and illegal if you can simply groom the playing field to your advantage.

On your show is an idol rapper–Jimin from AOA. She has oodles and oodles of stage experience. Let’s let our episode judge, Zico, weigh in here! (All translations and subtitles by unprettyrapstar.)

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I mean, yeah, she’s got so much stage experience, it’s a given that she’ll win any competition focused on stagecraft.

So, she gets to pick a team (aka Team Shoo-In) to compete on stage.

And the bitch doesn’t pick Yuk Ji Dam. Fuck!

No problem–you are resourceful! You want to keep your job!

Magically, a crisis appears! Even more magically, this crisis applies only to Yuk Ji Dam.

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Yeah, she’s underage! Even though there was no problem before, all of a sudden the club won’t let her in. Oh, nos–she can’t compete as part of Team Destined To Lose!

Even better–she’s now an underdog. Farewell spoiled princess who did mysteriously well on Show Me the Money! And her reaction to the news is why it’s doubly important that Yuk Ji Dam not know what you’re doing: It makes good television only if she’s genuinely upset, ignoring Zico’s cries of, “Cheer up! Cheer up! The fix is in!” (I may have contributed my own translation to that last sentence.)

So, first Team Shoo-In wins (duh):

zico0 Zico1zico8

Now that the strong rappers have been disqualified, suddenly this turns into a competition judged solely on rap skills! And just as suddenly, justice comes to the underdog!

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Everybody wins! Or, rather, Yuk Ji Dam wins, and you, the producer, get to keep your job. Yaaaaaay!!!!

(Oh, and of course there’s going to be a singing-competition episode. In a rap competition. It shall be titled, The Episode We’re Having So That Jessi Will Win One.)

This kind of contrivance is a major reason why I don’t watch reality television any more. The other reason is people like Jessi (wasting her time on a rap competition, but building her reputation as a “personality”), but I’m far too familiar with writers forcing a certain ending. At this point, it just doesn’t interest me.

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The one thing I hope people do take from Unpretty Rapstar is to realize just how hard it is to actually rap well. A huge part of rapping, perhaps even more than with other forms of performance, is not getting freaked out–it’s this weird Zen thing where you stay relaxed and have flow while maintaining alertness and being able to quickly respond to whatever comes at you.

Which is a large part of why so much of rap revolves around things like battle rapping and diss tracks–as Lil Cham ably demonstrated in this episode, if you can’t rap under stress, then in a very real sense, you can’t rap. So there is this confrontational culture in rap, but it’s not because rappers are assholes or gangsters or whatever–it’s because it’s necessaryYou will find similar cultures in newsrooms, firehouses, and police stations. These are place where, if you can’t do your job well under pressure, it’s a significant limitation, so people ramp up the pressure to test you and to keep you sharp.

* * *

And no matter how she does, I have to say that I have tremendous respect for AOA’s Jimin. There’s been a lot of “How dare these unworthy bastards judge my goddess Jimin!!!” and I really have to credit her for not taking the easy road and just spending all her time with the kinds of fans who would quite happily kill for the opportunity to lick her asshole clean. Good on her for wanting to challenge herself and grow as an artist instead.

Get outside every once in a while

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So, there are people out there who are surprised that Zico is judging a Korean rap competition.

I…I…I….

I….

This is, I guess, what happens when you hermetically seal yourself off from reality (because reality is just too “problematic“) and live full-time in some little echo chamber where everyone agrees that Zico is just trash, trash! And that Block B should disband!

Because they’ve all been so very unsuccessful.

Yes, I know that “Tough Cookie” was controversial–among Americans. That’s because “faggot” means something here that it doesn’t mean in other countries. The song has won an award (given by French K-Pop fans, so no, you can’t even say that international fans don’t like it), the video is past the 1.5 million view mark on YouTube, and in Korea it was dowloaded more than 260,000 times in six weeks.

And you know, that’s not counting the music Zico does for Block B. Which, if you haven’t noticed, has been doing pretty well lately….

It especially baffles me because these are Americans, offended by the use of a word that means something bad in American English, who are wondering why Zico is involved in a Korean rap competition. Meanwhile, in the American entertainment industry, unless a celebrity reaches the point where no one will insure them, their careers are pretty much unaffected by what they do or say. I mean, Eminem threatened someone with a gun, has said some very nasty things about gays, and has had well-publicized drug problems, but if you heard that he was judging a rap competition, would you be scratching your head and going, “Why do they want HIM?”

I guess it’s part of the whole fantasy where Koreans are good and pure, and they exist solely to correct to our debauched American ways. So, Zico has become impure, and thus he should be cast out of Korean society!

Wait, you’re saying that doesn’t make any sense at all? Why should Koreans cast someone out for using a word that’s not actually a slur in their country? Why should they be expected to jump to the wishes of a bunch of fetishizing foreigners?

La-la-la-la! I’m not listening! You are problematic! I shall return to my snug little echo chamber where the outside world never intrudes!

Oh, dear

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So, this:

Plus this:

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Plus this:

Equals…do I even want to watch this? Because one of my least-favorite things about Zico is how he tends to bring an AK-47 to a pillow fight. Without even seeming to understand what he’s done.

I mean, he’s so well-meaning. While proving (without seeming to mean to) that, oh, you know, you should just put everyone else in the trash. And then poop on your trash.

Do you enjoy watching a bunch of kindergarteners bleed to death because someone just unleashed all over their playground? I don’t. I feel like I’m watching Kittens vs. Power Mower. Or, you know, Bambi vs. Godzilla.

Keyser Soze, indeed.

ETA: And well, no, he didn’t do what I was afraid he would do–he just phoned his part in.

I’m going to go read “Harrison Bergeron” now.