He’s still barely known, and yet aspiring hip-hop artist Jin is already contemplating a last-minute title change for his upcoming debut album, ”The Rest Is History.” ”The name of the album should be ‘Buy This Album and Figure Out That I’m Not Just the Chinese Rapper,”’ jokes the 21-year-old MC (whose last name is Au-Yeung). But as gimmicky — and culturally insensitive — as he may seem, the coming of Jin, the first Asian-American solo rapper to get a major-label release, is no laughing matter.
The North Miami Beach rapper’s first single and video, ”Learn Chinese,” has already generated controversy, which might be the point: The video doesn’t just confront race and racial stereotypes, it verges on exploiting and perpetuating them. (For starters, the song’s title evokes the cheesy language tutorials often offered in fortune cookies.) Referring to him as the ”original chinky-eyed MC,” spitting rhymes in Cantonese, and casting him in the dual role of a Chinese-food deliveryman and Chinatown Mafia boss, the single blatantly advertises his ethnicity, and is clearly intended to get people talking. Lionel Ridenour, an urban-music exec at Virgin, the album’s distributing label (though it will be released on the hardcore hip-hop imprint Ruff Ryders, where the likes of Eve and DMX got their start), admits the motivation behind the single was ”Let’s get [his race] out of the way so we can stop talking about it and start talking about the artist.”
And so what if the talk is a mixed bag? Asian-American music scholar Oliver Wang has seen a polarized response to Jin among the Asian-American community. ”Either they’re behind him 100 percent or they think he’s a terrible misrepresentation.” While Wang concedes that Jin’s mere presence on the scene is important, he can see where the MC’s politics are problematic. ”He’s trying to recast Chinatown as this hardcore gangsta ghetto, like our version of Compton or Bed-Stuy. Is that the only way Asian Americans can be down?”
So is Jin, as critics claim, deliberately trading on stereotypes to make it big when ”The Rest Is History” hits this coming spring? The rapper — who considers ”Learn Chinese” an ethnic anthem in the vein of Big Pun celebrating his Puerto Rican heritage — admits to walking a ”thin line” with his mixed messages. ”If you really think about the song,” he says, ”there’s nothing really gimmicky that I’m saying. It’s real shit.” Besides, he adds, people are talking, and ”that’s a start.”