Let’s get one thing straight: you do not have much in common with Kris Wu.
Unlike the Chinese-born, Canadian- raised entertainer, you will probably never star in a film that grosses $550 million in international box office receipts. It is also a safe bet that you will never be the first person from your country to chart a #1 single on iTunes. And try as you might to always look your best, your odds of being the first person of Chinese heritage to front a campaign for a major European fashion house are growing slimmer by the day.
However, if it’s any consolation, there are few people on planet Earth today who can claim to have acquired as much global fame and prominence as 27-year-old Wu. And yet, he is acutely aware that you have quite probably never heard of him. When I meet him at Koreatown’s kitschy-cool Break Room 86 on a balmy May evening, he divulges that he has put a great deal on the line to change that.
“Some people think I’m dumb—even my team tells me at times that I could be back home making so much money,” Wu says about the potentially sea-changing career transition he is currently undertaking, “If I’m back home in China, and I say I want to work with a certain producer, it’s just like this,” he says, snapping his fingers. “But I gave that all up and came here.” This is as frustrated a tone as you will ever hear out of the lean, flawlessly complexioned Wu. He doesn’t often display this much raw attitude, usually replying to questions with a cool, calm veneer—no doubt the product of both innate self-confidence and years of media training.
The question that prompts this frank response is, essentially: does it feel like he is starting over now that he has moved to America in search of chart success, after already establishing himself as a legend in both China and Korea? But if he’s defensive at first, he quickly pivots into a more strident attitude.
“No one my age in China working in music has the guts to do this,” says Wu, the illustrious tennis chain around his neck catching a glint of the bar’s low light. “I want to show the kids back home that this can be done.”
But first, a bit of a primer on the world of Kris Wu, assuming this is indeed your first introduction (including, crucially, the pronunciation of his name—the “W” is soft, so it is closer phonetically to “oo” than “woo”).
After emigrating to Canada with his family as a boy, Wu was discovered at 18 by a talent management company called SM Entertainment. If you have ever wondered how K-Pop groups are put together and capitalized, companies like SM Entertainment are the direct source.
A selection of twelve young men, including Wu, were handpicked, groomed, and assembled into an outfit called EXO. With a sound that ran the spectrum from Pitbull-esque club pop to Bieber-esque club pop, EXO basically conquered the Asian music market beginning in 2012. They were the first Korean-based artists to go platinum in over a decade. They churned out singles. They churned out videos. They churned out photoshoots. The result: at 21, Wu had millions of rabid fans, a schedule packed with tour dates in arenas, and all the access that megastardom affords.
But by 2014, Wu had grown tired of the micromanagement and creative suppression that comes with being in a boyband, and, like Justin Timberlake before him, decided to strike out on his own as a solo artist—but not before wiggling out of his recording contract with SM Entertainment by engaging them in a still-active court case over the “violation of his human rights.”
If that seems like a lot of context to take in, the story gets crazier from there.
In 2014, Wu recorded solely as “Kris Wu” for the first time. (The scare quotes may be relevant, given that his birth name is actually Li Jiaheng.) Though he was now officially standing on his own, his first release—a soundtrack piece for a mainstream Korean film called Tiny Times 3—was still strictly K-pop: sweeping strings, lilting piano, and straightfaced lines like “Raindrops are blown into flowers by the wind.” But a series of major rebrandings were on the horizon.
Beginning in 2015, Wu conquered the Chinese box office. He starred in six Chinese films between 2015 and 2016, including The Mermaid, which became the highest grossing film in the country’s history. Burberry tapped him for a capsule collection. He walked the Met Gala red carpet and played in the NBA All-Star celebrity game alongside Justin Bieber. If he was a star before, he was now a full-on paparazzi magnet, with major sway across the Asian continent.
But again, Wu wasn’t satisfied. The next transition arrived via Chinese reality TV show The Rap of China. A mindfuckingly insane talent contest program, Rap is essentially American Idol, but with young Chinese rappers instead of singers. Its massive ratings are largely seen as responsible for an explosion of Chinese interest in rap culture, due in no small part to Wu’s role in the program—that of the distant, constantly dismissive judge in the Simon Cowell mold. Gone was the more polite, boy-band iteration of Wu; in his place, Chinese audiences were presented with a Supreme-wearing badboy rapper who destroyed the hopes of wide-eyed contestants with his diamond microphone (if that sounds awesome, it’s because it kind of is).
And that, by and large, is the version of Wu that is currently attempting to infiltrate the American hip-hop marketplace.
“I’m trying to be the bridge for East and West with music,” he declares. “I want to be the Jackie Chan of music—so that when you talk about music from China, you talk about me.”
If those ambitions sound outsized, consider that, in terms of bridging East and West, he is off to a pretty sizable start. He secured a feature on Travis Scott’s 2017 track “Deserve,” which contains all the signifiers of the modern hip-hop formula: triplet roll hi-hats, autotune vocals, and a lyrical perspective mostly centered on enticing a woman to fuck.
It landed #1 on iTunes downloads, and secured Wu the attention of the major American labels. Universal struck, signing him to an unprecedented international deal.
Now, Wu is busy prepping a full-length debut album of “melodic- style rap” that will be recorded and distributed in several languages. A release date is yet to be pinned down, but should be expected in the next six months. “I’m just trying to break through,” he tells me. “People might not know what my sound is about yet, and the album will be there for them to find out.”
Wu hopes to convert his millions of social media followers into a reliable base of downloaders and streamers. Western interests like Universal and Burberry know just what they’re doing by endorsing Wu. In an increasingly globalized cultural future all audiences are on equal footing, and as China assumes ever more economic dominance, with millions of people moving into the middle class, there may be no more important market on earth. This could make Wu, one of the few figures with major cache on both sides of the Pacific, an immensely profitable and powerful man in the sphere of international hip-hop. Even if you’ve never heard of him. Yet.
Written By: Dylan Chase
Photographed: Bil Brown
Styled by: Mui-Hai Chu
Groomer: Kristen Shaw at Art Department using ORIBE
Photo Assistant: Drew Pluta
Styling and Production Assistant: Britton Litow
Special Thanks to Mark and Jonnie Houston and Morgan Jensen.