"Rap is the most expressive form of music out there..."

“Fame is a double-edged sword. I miss the days when you weren’t as accessible - now everyone wants a version of you that isn’t real.” You’d be hard pressed finding a more omnipresent global export than China’s Wu Yifan, AKA Kris Wu. Fortunately, any preconceived notion that follows a star of his calibre is dispelled. He answers questions with gusto that is both infectious and refreshing - no sign of an impassive disconnect.

Kris is merely cautious of the digi-centric world we occupy. He’s convivial but battle-hardened, immune to the immediacy and the harshness of the Internet age. East Asian stars in particular exist in a vortex of vociferous fandom-mania, their religious fervour reviving a cult of personality and mass hysteria at every turn. A craze that is inconceivable to us mere mortals.

A tall, lithe pin-up and an archetype of the eastern dream, 27-year old Kris has a colossal 26 million fans on Weibo - the Chinese equivalent of Twitter - and a further six million Insta followers. The metrics don’t end there. Data from Next Big Sound, a music analytics company, shows that Korean/Chinese acts, like EXO (of which Kris is a former member), garner the most online engagement and interactivity per fan, not just in their respective countries but worldwide.

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Popularity sticks like glue. It’s meant Kris has a chameleonic reach that spans music, film and fashion. Just last year, Kris collaborated with Burberry on a 19-piece capsule collection enthused by his own personal style. Dubbed a “triple-threat” by the Chinese media, he’s completely zoned-in when discussing his multi-disciplinary approach to work. “I’ve pushed aside countless opportunities, been selective about what I take on, and what I associate with. But my music always comes first. I liken it to a relationship: in order for it work, you have to nurture it,” Kris declares.

His love of hip-hop in particular runs deep. At times, Kris reverts back to the doe-eyed, 10-year-old who moved from of Guangzhou, China, to Vancouver, Canada. Instead of caving into his unfamiliar surroundings, a displaced Kris ingratiated himself to basketball and its integrated links to rap, declaring it “the fifth element of hip-hop music.”

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I liken it to a relationship: in order for it work, you have to nurture it...

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Hall of Famer Allen Iverson was Wu’s early influence, his brazen swagger an emblem of the rebellious spirit of street culture. “There just was something unapologetic and authentic about Allen. He was always himself. I started looking for that in artists I listened to, like Pharrell, Snoop, The Game and later on in my teens Kanye was the big one.” He speaks with a sincere reverence for the genesis of hip-hop, taking his role as a bicultural pioneer for the movement seriously. Kris continues: “I feel I have a responsibility to educate my people about the origins, the history, and the culture surrounding hip-hop.”

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Hip-hop culture is emancipating the youth of China, a genre that up until now existed on the fringes as something insular and localised. “Rap is the most expressive form of music out there. It can be about anything. The youth need that mode of expression,” Kris says. The rap movement in China is one fraught with trepidation about ‘outside’ influence. It’s unlike the autonomous rise of pop-leaning music in South Korea, which has been on a collision course with the West since the demise of totalitarian rule in the ’80s. Chinese rappers like Kris have to circumvent nationalistic ideology, a sub-culture that breeds individualism, at risk of falling under strict expurgation.

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It’s about giving upcoming Chinese rappers the platform to go outside their comfort zones...

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Take the reality TV show Rap Of China; a format in the vein of The Voice, with Wu serving as a judge on the panel. The show’s impact has been irrefutable, moving hip-hop from an embryonic, underground genre to the mainstream. The show’s runaway success has guaranteed a second season, but when something transcends culture in China, what follows soon after is the party line of subservience.

Whatever the outcome, Kris believes unequivocally in his role as a next- gen rap influencer, and despite being disparaged by a contingent of hip-hop loyalists, he refuses to entertain the cynicism of others. He pauses for a moment. “No one can deny we’ve brought hip-hop to the forefront, not just in China but worldwide. It’s about giving upcoming Chinese rappers the platform to go outside their comfort zones. That can’t be a bad thing.”

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The West has been impervious to Kris’s eastern predecessors, who’ve failed to make a dent on the charts, unable to acclimate to the harsh, ephemeral shifts in pop music. The tides are shifting, however: crossover success is no longer a myth. Earlier this year, K-pop trailblazers BTS debuted at No. 1 on the Album Charts, and Kris became the first Chinese artist to debut on the Hot 100, both English-language songs ‘Deserve’ and ‘Like That’ debuting at No. 1 on the iTunes Chart. Having just signed to Universal, Kris is tapping into international demand. “I feel so much pride in being Chinese right now. It’s never been done before. I’m just happy that finally we’re making a mark worldwide.”

Wu’s music has a sanitised, Americanised feel to it. He rap-sings over hedonistic, vogue, trap-laden beats - think the woozy atmospherics of Migos, PARTYNEXTDOOR and of course Travis Scott, who features on ‘Deserve’. “Me and Travis are quite similar; we occupy the same space, have the same chemistry. It was all very organic and fluid.” ‘Deserve’ evokes the earworm hook of Jamie Foxx’s ‘Blame It’, the perfect slice of body-talk music ripe for the summer.

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I’m just happy that finally we’re making a mark worldwide...

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Aside from the high-octane anthems, Kris promises to deliver intimate confessionals on a “narrative-driven concept album”. Kris is removing the shackles of his past under the strict despotism of the K-pop hit factory. Like most ex-boyband members, he’s reinventing his identity, wanting to exist on his own virtues. “Since I’ve gone solo, there’s a lot more freedom for me to create the stuff that I want, that I fully believe in. That just wasn’t the case before. There’s no one dictating the sound or the visuals on the upcoming record, it’s all me.”

According to Kris, his zenith hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s around the corner. “This year and the next is about making history. I hope in the future we’ll look back and see that Chinese artists made an impact on music worldwide. It’ll be part of that conversation.”

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Words: Shahzaib Hussain
Photography: Graham Walzer
Fashion: Ashley Guerzon

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