Orla Foster

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The Rap Game (series 2)

Nearly twenty years after the first episode of Popstars aired, you'd expect our enthusiasm for TV talent shows to have cooled a little. Aren't bad cover versions and thwarted dreams old news by now? Enter The Rap Game, in which six aspiring rappers battle it out for a record deal from Krept and Konan. The hiphop duo teamed up with Radio 1Extra's DJ Target to present the show in spectacularly understated and unshowy fashion ― no piano arrangements preying on your emotion, zero warbling.

For its second series, the show amassed a shaky set of personalities, none of whom seemed ready to leave a dent in the universe. There was quietly confident introvert Zones; photogenic but forgetful Ddroid; earnest former MOBO recipient Graft; sunny theatre school graduate Lesia; and Shogun, a shrewd Scottish MC, dogged by Eminem comparisons. Lastly came D Live, drafted in to replace a shellshocked Micahh, and pitched as something of a maverick off the back of hit song 'Bajan Boy'.

Not that there were shortcuts. The Rap Game wasn't looking to catapult starry-eyed kids into showbiz, but (perhaps more prosaically) to extend practical advice and build confidence in artists already fighting to scratch out a name for themselves. That said, the format still relies on the ~Professional Recording Career~ as its dangled carrot, dictating each set task. Contestants must freestyle, dredge up painful autobiographical material, perform with a live orchestra, star in music videos and bounce back from the barbed comments of journalists. They have to cooperate with one another while also being ruthless.

Few experience that ruthlessness harder than Lesia, who teams up with Graft on a joyful ode to Jamaica, only to face him later in a brutal clash when his immortal line "ballhead girl, you look like Paul Pogba" draws gasps from everyone in earshot. And there are other clashes. Shogun earns his peers' respect with his breakneck flow, but ruffles feathers with a speech about Scotland meaning more than their respective postcodes. The usually serene Zones screams with frustration when Micahh decides to quit the show, all her pep talks in vain.

Unlike other talent shows, The Rap Game doesn't bludgeon you with storyline, or demand you trust in the godlike wisdom of its judging panel. If anything, Krept and Konan are reluctant gods. Naturally leaning towards artists who are fellow Londoners, they repeatedly complain of "clarity" issues with accents different to their own, and freely admit to struggling to rank performances. And they don't get a big desk to hide behind. When facing the artists in the kitchen of a Birmingham flat, they can't simply flash saintly Cheryl smiles from a distance, but must painstakingly justify decisions, and take it on the chin if contestants storm off to their bedrooms.

If they hesitate, the slack is picked up by Target, who clearly takes his mentoring responsibility seriously, sharing industry expertise and quietly proffering advice. While the show insists upon force of character, there's simply no space for ego.

Then, of course, lockdown hit. Contestants packed their bags and were sent home to squirrel away at their projects. On another show, this might have been a disastrous narrative arc, but on The Rap Game it only reinforced the fact that being a successful MC is less about glamour then simply locking yourself away to write bars. Writing may not be camera-friendly, but it's their raison d'être.

And when filming finally resumes, everyone's tightened up their act. Lesia appears particularly renewed with a new haircut ― attributed to lockdown glow-up, rather than lasting damage from the Pogba incident. Everyone is delivering sharper lines, no longer cowering in the face of scrutiny.

So who would come out on top? Watching the contestants shiver in a dark autumnal night as they waited for the announcement, it was anyone's guess. Almost all the artists fluffed lines, blundered and faltered, undermined and exceeded expectation. The first series may have had its he-was-robbed moment when judges shunned the all-round excellence of Ransom to nurture the younger talent of Kiico, but this time the artists seemed pretty level.

When Graft is finally crowned the winner, it feels a well-earned victory for his conscious, slightly laboured approach to songwriting, the optimism of his lyrics rooted in darker experiences from a troubled past. You sense that being on the show is another experience he will duly parse for insights, earnestly drawing wisdom from the struggle.

In a year of frustrated ambitition and delays, The Rap Game provided a sense of forward motion. The artists weren't stuck in quicksand like the rest of us, but striving, confronting their weaknesses and forging ahead. Besides, the record deal didn't seem much more than a token. With so much raw talent and creativity in their arsenal, there's reason to hope every last one of the contestants is busy plotting their next move, pen in hand.

2020. Unpublished.