On the surface, survival shows can only have one winner – whoever makes it to the end. Kingdom: Legendary War might be only two episodes deep at the time of writing, but already its six contestants have crowned one additional victor – K-pop itself.
For those who are new to the show, the premise is simple: six groups battle it out each week, presenting reimagined versions of their hits (and maybe some covers) in the hopes of eventually being named the kings of K-pop. The lineup for this season is an exciting mix, bringing together global stars like Stray Kids, rising bands like ATEEZ and THE BOYZ, the underrated SF9 and veterans like iKON and BtoB.
On paper, it might seem easy to guess who will walk away triumphant – or at least be near the top of the pile – especially because global fan votes count for a big chunk of the results. The first two episodes, though, have proved that’s far from the case. We’ll avoid spoiling things too much, but the rankings from the introductory performances were somewhat surprising – not just for who was near the top, but for the group at the bottom too.
The heavy competition isn’t just good for the show’s broadcaster Mnet (and boy will it enjoy using close results to create dramatic and suspenseful cliffhangers), it’s also great news for K-pop and fans of the scene as a whole. The unpredictability of the results so far and the fact that the votes are so tight shows the quality of the artists who make up the current K-pop scene is incredibly high.
It’s particularly exciting to see THE BOYZ so high up in the ranking for the first performance. The boyband was the only group who had to earn their spot on the show, through the 2020 prequel series Road To Kingdom, where they battled it out against Verivery, TOO, PENTAGON, ONF, Oneus and Golden Child.
Although it remains to be seen if their participation in Road To Kingdom will work for or against them. On one hand, it’s given them experience of the survival format and shown them what’s needed to win. On the other, they could have already used up much of their ambitious ideas on those performances while their new competitors still have new tricks up their sleeves. So far, though, it seems to be a case of the former, with the 11-piece group setting a high bar for their competitors.
Each group that’s taking part in Kingdom bring their own unique style to the stage – there’s truly an act to satisfy everyone’s tastes here. BtoB are the kings of ballads, SF9 give us suave sophistication, and iKON are the hip-hop crew with tons of swagger. There’s a bit more of an overlap between the remaining three groups as experimental upstarts, but they still stand out against each other.
The live element has always been one of K-pop’s strengths and a show like Kingdom lets that shine even brighter. Some groups have used the programme’s stage to build extravagant new worlds and deploy jaw-dropping stunts and theatrics, like BtoB’s Minhyuk duelling with dancers in a sword fight straight out of a historical drama for their performance of ‘Missing You’. Others have kept things unfussy and simple, as was the case for iKON’s performance of ‘Rhythm Ta’, letting their skills, attitude and powerful choreography make their case for votes.
Though we’ve only seen performances from BtoB, iKON and THE BOYZ in the first proper round so far, they’ve already highlighted the sheer inventiveness that courses through the K-pop scene. Tasked with performing a song that sends a message to the world, the acts have reworked songs from their back catalogues stunningly.
There’s the aforementioned swashbuckling BtoB appearance, while THE BOYZ turn ‘No Air’ into a Game Of Thrones-inspired epic complete with fire, somersaults and more. iKON, meanwhile, weave an elaborate story of lost love by mashing two of their 2018 singles, ‘Love Scenario’ and ‘Killing Me’,. It seems safe to say Stray Kids, ATEEZ and SF9 will continue to up the ante with their performances in episode three..
Perhaps the most exciting part of Kingdom, though, is the fact that these six groups are just a small sample of the male artists creating and performing in K-pop today. Also a special shoutout to females acts such as MAMAMOO, (G)I-DLE, AOA, Oh My Girl, Lovelyz and Park Bom for paving the way in 2019 with Queendom. That there are so many gifted and eclectic acts who are not currently on the show proves the scene is in a great place when it comes to talent, range and imagination. For that, everyone should get their own figurative crowns, survival show winners or not.