It’s Friday afternoon, but nothing extraordinary happened all day.
Your phone lightens up again. What appeared to be yet another mindless social media notification turns out to be your best friend, ringing insensately. As you pick up, the homie on the other side of the line jolts with excitement. Your favourite rapper just announced that he is playing a secret gig in your town tonight and both of your names made it to the guest list. Nightfall arrives. you summon the squad and head out to the undisclosed location shared with a couple of hundred. Your heart pumps with adrenaline as you look at the crowd now circling you. this venue is so packed that condensation drips from the ceiling. You know it. As soon as the next drop hits, the bodies in this windowless basement are going to get the foundations of the building shaking. Hipsters and hustlers, side-by-side, letting loose of their inhibitions like there is no tomorrow.
It’s hard to conceive that a mere forty or so years ago such accepted truism was considered a rebellious act. The brutal honesty of yesteryears lyricism could be interpreted as anti-social behaviour by dated standards, but Hip-hop is, and always will be, a powerful tool for self-expression. Starting underground parties in Harlem and the Bronx, to South Central LA, this bicoastal affair is now a global movement. Its current stature has been perceived as both a gift and a curse, but as new voices are added to it, the foundation of it remains: Polemic content will always sound better if delivered in rhymed couplets over an intoxicating beat.
“I want to be able to build my career, and to be acknowledged for my music, and music only.” – Kris Wu shares the beginning of our long distance call between London and Los Angeles. Wu’s unbudgeable optimistic tone is contagious. Hip-hop, as he sees it, endowed him with cultural elasticity to produce music that would bridge hip-hop’s less-charted axis – East and West. He doesn’t New York and Los Angeles by it. He’s referring merging Occidental and Oriental cultures in one track.
Born Wu Yifan in the southern port city of Guangzhou, Kris is his Western name, adopted aged ten, the same time he and his mother moved to Vancouver. At such a tender age one has yet to develop a conscience to perceive the differences between these two worlds, but the first noticeable barrier was very real: Language.
“I didn’t know what culture shock was, but I remember being eager to speak English so I could make friends. That’s why I played sports and take music lessons in school.” He became an integral part of the school’s basketball team, and it would only be a matter of time until hip-hop became an essential part of his life. Vancouver wasn’t a brawling hip-hop mecca, but the hyper-connectivity of the Internet meant that he could channel the freestyle braggadocio of West Coast rappers such Snoop Dog and the conscious fluidity of the East, such as Pharrell and the Neptunes from the comfort of his home.
Over the line, Kris describes a career in showbiz that spawns for over a decade. Aged seventeen, still in Vancouver, he auditioned for a role with Korean entertainment company S.M. Entertainment. His talent brought him back to Asia where he would remain under a rigorous artist development regime. The year is 2008, Kris is in Seoul training side by side eleven other artists. Debuting in 2012, EXO, the K-POP band Kris belonged to, achieved such unprecedented success in Asia that soon flooded into international markets. The years spent honing his craft landed him a global première, and regardless of the continent they were, fandom hysteria surrounded them wherever they went. Possibly, still does. Fast-forward twenty-four months, in 2014 news broke that he would leave the band to fly solo.
Kris might have been watching the game from the sidelines at that point of his life, but that didn’t prevent him of keeping a busy schedule.
Much to the dismay of trolls, and excitement of his highly devoted fan base, while taking the time to re-define his musical identity, he made his Hollywood debut on ‘XXX: Return of Xander’, and helped design a 19-piece capsule collection for Burberry. Becoming the first non-British ambassador for the classic luxury brand, Kris candidly remembers the night of the release of the collection in Shanghai, where the opportunity to share the stage with a man whose artistic career has written, and keeps writing, entire pages of the rulebook.
“I was very fortunate to have met and worked with Pharrell. He produced a song for me, and asked if I could sing this song in Mandarin for him.’ – at the time unaware of the track was meant to be released for the Asian or global markets – “I asked him if he wanted the majority of it in English, with a couple of verses in Mandarin. He just said – ‘People don’t have to understand it, I just know that you can do something that I can’t, and that might just be dope'”.
That sentence made him take a stab at re-assessing how he could use his unique life experience to add something new to the culture, and he has been doing it since. Kris first single came out in September last year alongside Houston’s Travis Scott. Presenting himself in the American market leaning towards deeper, melodic auto-tuned cadence, laced in texturally refined track, ‘Deserve’ is a trap-infused banger for the ladies. “I fell that there is a need to let people understand and acknowledge my sound first, and then I can tell my story. I listen to a song more than a thousand times before it’s out. I make sure that it sounds right at each step of the way. But when it’s out, it’s out for me”.
Hard work paid off, this single landed Kris’s first No.1 hit, both the US iTunes Top Songs Chart and US iTunes Hip-Hop Songs Chart. The collaboration between the two was a year in the making, so one can only fathom the number of loops it must have taken to get to the final cut. Laying low for a minute, he came back at the beginning of this year, showing the brasher side of his delivery. ‘18′ starts with Wu’s hard-hitting stroke, alternating between English and Mandarin in the first verses, passing the torch to 88 Rising’s Rich Brian and Joji, and Trippie Red and Baauer as the track unfolds. His latest release takes a sharp turn, easing up the tension of such braggadocio. “Like that” has a hazy summery flow to it, and it is perhaps the first track where you can start to feel the influence of his new found home in Lost Angeles merging his sonics.
These three singles are only a mere intro to the main event that has been almost three years in the making. Even though he couldn’t share much about his long-play project that will be released this fall, he did let a clue, or two slid in conversation.
“There’s almost like a story, a plot behind this album. The way the songs are put together, the order of the tracks, I wanted it to be meaningful. It unfolds as the story of my life.” -Long studio sessions aren’t compatible with the road and live performances, but did get an opportunity this year that many have been trying for years. – “I performed at the American Super Bowl earlier this year. It was the first time I went to Minnesota. It was really cold, snowing. People were standing outside in the freezing cold for me. – he pauses – I was touched, I didn’t even know I had fans there.”
Being the first Chinese artist to play at the Super Bowl is a certified step forward towards to represent his culture and allow the American audience to get to familiar with his artistry. It’s interesting to observe that after achieving all this in record time, he remains refreshingly humble, fully focused on his duties as an ambassador to his country’s flag, and acutely aware of the influence that his work might have on millennials in China.
China has a longstanding multifaceted millenary culture, but hip-hop and his values remain a novelty. The countries Internet ban of the 90’s could not prevent the informational exchange of cultural life, and commonality found its way of travelling beyond its inhabitant’s most immediate surroundings. For the past decade, a new generation of edgy, proudly Asian hip-hop acts has been bubbling underground. As artists experiment with sonics, moods and messages – assimilating their story and their culture to it our community, friendship, style and struggle are all now a borderless exchange. Fans (now from everywhere) will always flock. The nightclub. The festival. The local favourites… In person. Or online. There’s no turning back. That’s what countercultures do. They evade and evolve, as they always have. Originally, Hip-hop conveyed the tales from the Bronx, Harlem & South Central, Detroit, Virginia, and Atlanta. Crossing the border to Toronto, all the way across the pond onto London -Tottenham Hale, Croydon and Brixton – to Paris, Stockholm, Seoul, Tokyo ….. The next stories will most likely be told from Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou……..I wonder where it will go next?
This was originally written in print as our Volume #26 cover feature in August 2018.
Stream ‘November Rain’, below.
Words by Catarina Ramalho