Look at me
Chinese American rapper Jin attacks invisibility.

By Jeff Chang

IN EARLY 2002 , then-19-year-old Jin Auyueng, the Miami-born son of Chinese take-out restaurant owners, appeared on the popscape like an AZN Eminem, winning BET's Freestyle Friday battle crown for a record seven straight weeks. He'd already built a rep on the streets of New York by crushing record-store freestylers, subway backpackers, and café open-mic rhymers. He was signed to the Ruff Ryders camp, and his legend spread.

Across the country, Asian American teens traded CD-Rs of his TV battles and leaked tracks, lit up Internet boards, and downloaded his singles from AOL more than 500,000 times. An appearance in John Singleton's 2 Fast 2 Furious as an import chop-shop mechanic sealed minor stardom.

Jin's back story was just as crucial. Rapping was his escape from a destiny of 12-hour chop-suey drudgery. In a moment of second-gen audacity, he had decided to forgo college and leave Miami for New York to make it in the music biz. Once he signed, his parents followed him to Queens. Forget The Joy Luck Club. Through dropping rhymes in the clubs, Jin had rewritten the Asian American dream.

For overeducated hip-hop-gen AZN cult-crits like me, Jin presents a subject worthy of our subjectivities, a voice that validates our own time in the wilderness. The tag of "Asian American hip-hop" – a label many of us artists and critics have fretted over, some have championed, and others have rejected – isn't a new phenomenon. But as the first to break from the underground into the big leagues, Jin becomes the thing most of us were incapable of becoming or unwilling to become. Through marketing, sociology, and a vast audience's unfulfilled desire, he appears as the great yellow hope.

Jin has come to this moment through a struggle we all recognize, proving himself to skeptics and doubters over and over again. On "C'mon," a revelatory autobiographical note, he says, "In every battle, the race card was my downfall." In his second BET battle, his competitor attacked him with rhymes like "He's just a rookie, leave rap alone and keep making fortune cookies" and "His mom was in Menace II Society saying, 'Hurry and buy.' "

But Jin came back hard: "You wanna say I'm Chinese? Sonny, here's a reminder: check ya Tims. They probably say, 'Made in China.' " Future competitors soft-pedaled the race thing. Still, the battle isn't over. "My fans got haters too," he notes. Yet Jin also seems ready to take the mantle. "It's true I got some big shoes to fill, but if I don't lead the movement, who will?" he raps on "Same Cry." That's why we root for him and scrutinize him the same way we did KRS-One, Rakim, and Chuck 15 years ago.

In fact, Jin does present something wholly new, not just in American but also global pop: an unapologetically working-class, second-generation kid flowing in Cantonese and New York-inflected Ebonics with the same fluency. He's no pricey Hong Kong import, no sexless high-kicking martial arts expert in yellowface. By simply repping in a black tee with a diamond-encrusted Ruff Ryders pendant, he could have the most impact on the notion of an "authentic" Asian American masculinity since Bruce Lee.

Therein lies the paradox. Lots of ink will be spilled, including right here, about Jin's social and symbolic importance. In February, when Bay Guardian contributor Oliver Wang criticized Jin's "Learn Chinese" video in his blog, Pop Life (www.o-dub.com/weblog/index.html), hip-hop blogger Hashim "Madison" Warren responded, writing in his own Diesel Nation (dieselnation.blogs.com/hiphop): "And so begins the culture critiques that will mark Jin's career more than his musical talent." Jin himself has noted, "If I was a wack Asian rapper, there wouldn't be all this fuss." In a country whose racial frame remains white, white, white, and a little bit black, it's hard to underestimate how much the rapper might mean off wax.

But it's still hard to gauge what he means on it. Jin's debut, The Rest Is History (Ruff Ryders/Virgin), which has been delayed for months reportedly because of worries over its music and marketing, is uneven at best, a product of expensive doubts and hedged bets. The relentless "Get Your Handz Off" allows Jin to flaunt his Art of War-learned skills (and, perhaps not coincidentally, bears some resemblance to New Zealand's celebrated ethnic Samoan hardcore rapper Scribe's 2003 breakthrough hit, "Stand Up"). But scripting an album is different from controlling a battle. So in a fine irony for Asian Americans, the album is presented as "The Higher Education of Jin."

In the opening skit, the naive college dropout is swindled by the Ruff Ryders' white lawyer and then schooled on how to really be black by the label's head, Joaquin "Waah" Dean, who promises a lifestyle makeover complete with Dobermans, bikes, and guns. There's an underlying theme here: as an Asian American, Jin couldn't possibly know how to succeed in entertainment. But the pricey Kanye West-produced "I Got a Love" and the Just Blaze-produced "Club Song," on which Jin is tutored in how to do a love song à la Pete Rock and a dance joint à la Fabolous, respectively, are the album's weakest tracks. By the middle of the album, in another skit, Jin takes control of the record.

Through the last half, Jin seems to find his feet. Despite producer Wyclef Jean's now-typical multiculti-for-dummies bullshit, "Learn Chinese" succeeds, with Jin cleverly linking James Brown and Rodney King, racial profiling, char-siu, and railroad building. "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" and "Cold Outside" tap into his real-life New York Chinatown gang drama that climaxed last year when a friend caught a bullet for him. But instead of bragging about surviving, the most clichéd rap trope available, he sounds downright penitent. Some of the truest moments are, by rap standards, the corniest. "Thank You," a track of appreciative shout-outs, is the longest song on the record.

Even better is "Love Story," a tender tale of interracial love that reads as less melodramatic than Mississippi Masala and more true than the ridiculous Romeo Must Die.

"C'mon" is Jin's statement of purpose, a personal twist on Eminem-style self-mythmaking. "I know that it's been debated: I'm a gimmick they created," he raps. "So I chose to be the one to change the face of the game. Look at me! Hot as California burning in flames." In two lines of stare-at-the-sun intensity, Jin moves from Asian American invisibility to corneal incineration.

"Same Cry" justifies the hype and the hope. Opening with a tribute to the Tiananmen Square protesters, it moves through a meditation on the Golden Venture refugees and succinctly parses the morality of Nike sweatshops. It concludes with a challenge to Asian Americans, a race always seemingly caught in the middle and too often prone to staying safely on the fence: "What will you do? Run or stand still?" It's as much a 21st-century Asian American pop manifesto as Justin Lin's film Better Luck Tomorrow, Vijay Prashad's book Everybody Was King Fu Fighting, and Christine Y. Kim's "Black Belt" art exhibition. As a form, hip-hop tends to speak more immediately to on-the-street realities than museum shows, books, and even movies do. There's a lot of history now resting on this kid's slender shoulders. Hold that weight, Jin.

Jin appears Thurs/21, 4 p.m., Tower Records Stonestown, 3205 20th Ave., S.F. Free. (415) 681-2001. He performs at a record-release party Fri/22, 10 p.m., 330 Ritch, S.F. Call for price. (415) 541-9574.