Like one of those moody lads nodding along in a grime video, The Rap Game UK (BBC Three) seems content to fade into the background, while bigger beasts go head-to-head in the TV talent contest arena. It launched last year as a low-key version of the Jermaine Dupri and Queen Latifah-fronted US original, and it hasn’t got any flashier since. The second series is still judged by the rap duo Krept and Konan, plus 1Xtra’s DJ Target. It still takes place in Birmingham, still has the same recording-contract prize, and still eschews such crowd-pleasing conventions as audience votes and weekly eliminations.
This means the six MCs who line up in the show’s opening a cappella challenge will – bar a major upset – be the same ones to face the judges in the finale. An inauspicious fact, since three of them flopped so hard it’s a wonder they didn’t smash through to the floor below. This was the instantly forgettable Graft, Afro-trap specialist Micahh and daddy’s girl Lesia. They may well have each prepared an incredible 16 bars, but we’ll never know. When the moment came, they stuttered, stumbled and simply couldn’t get the words out. “I lose a bit of respect for an MC when they do that,” grumbled Shogun, the 22-year-old Scot who had successfully showcased his own ferocious flow. “I don’t want to be in clashes with people where I feel like I’m kicking an injured dog.” And nor would we wish to see it!
Some of these guys are yet to prove their rapping skill. Their reality TV credentials, however, all appear to be in order. I’m biased because we’re both from Hackney, but Micahh has a bouncy charm, and since he’s only just got his life together after an extended period of homelessness he, at least, has a sympathetic excuse for those memory lapses. Maybe he’ll pick up some coping tactics from DDroid? The Birmingham native has also had his troubles, but blew away guest judge Rapman in the second challenge, with a melodic narrative about being sectioned with depression. Zones also impressed, with her ice-cold assassin’s demeanour and as an out-and-proud lesbian in a music scene that still harbours pockets of homophobia. When the other contestants misgendered her, she corrected them with minimal fuss and maximum elan.
Shogun, meanwhileis shaping up to be a compelling villain – and every reality show needs one. His loudly expressed dissatisfaction with third place rubbed his new flatmates up the wrong way and caused even the unflappable Zones to raise an eyebrow. “Scotland’s produced some of the best poets in the world, but yet we get shunned in the rap community,” he announced, quickly warming to his rant’s theme of persecution and unrecognised national heroism. “I’m hungrier than any one of youse! My whole country needs me! Never mind an estate or a postcode …” Aside from his carelessly insulting tone and evident ignorance of hip-hop’s history and racial politics, Shogun was also apparently forgetting about Random FA, last year’s Nigerian-Scottish contestant from Aberdeen.
Compare Shogun’s swaggering self-importance with his fellow frontrunners: Zones displayed quiet composure, while DDroid made it his business to uplift everyone. We’re presented with a worthwhile psychological study, that l like to call “Confidence and the Hip-Hop MC”. Contrary to received X Factor wisdom “wanting it” and “believing in yourself” are not the only ingredients of a successful music career. It also helps to have the kind of sturdy self-esteem that doesn’t depend on denigrating the efforts of others. Battle settings excepted, of course.
Since UK hip-hop has long overcome its own inferiority complex, it’s difficult to believe that these six MCs really do represent the best the UK has to offer. Frankly, I’ve seen more polished talents on the top deck of the 253 bus. More likely, in common with British people generally, unsigned MCs here are just more circumspect and cynical by nature, and therefore less likely to enter a TV talent competition than their American equivalents. Watching these guys improve under the judges’ capable mentorship will still be entertaining, whatever their starting point. In the meantime, perhaps a crew member can nip out and buy DJ Target some trousers? What is he thinking, sitting there doing to-camera interviews in a pair of zebra-print boxer shorts?