What if I told you the Chinese-American War began not from Trump-fueled trade disputes or the governance of Taiwan, but rather from Kris Wu’s “Antares” album? In a period of high blood pressure and immense, often understandable sensitivity, the mere appearance of a beef, a semblance of disrespect towards one of China’s biggest stars from one of America’s biggest stars, was enough to conjure tweets like these:
Grande’s like was ill-advised. Jumping out to accuse an artist of using bots without proper evidence or an attempt at communication with said artist is harmful. The harmfulness sinews when it comes to the reception (and perception) of Asian artists in the United States. American society has been celebrating upticks in diverse representation in media; in the BTS era, the K-Pop stan has become more and more common in the American social landscape. Grande and her manager, the ever-successful Scooter Braun, who may or may not have tweeted disparaging comments about Wu’s success, have inadvertently positioned themselves as the Big Bad Bigots, pompously discrediting the rare success of an Asian crossover artist. All it took was a few little Twitter moments.
What actually happened for Wu to obtain this absurd spike of US success? A Variety Magazine report hints significantly at fraud. Billboard and Nielsen Music put a statement out: they “are working closely to ensure both the accuracy and legitimacy of the sales volumes being reported for Kris Wu this week.” Remember that while Kris Wu is one of China’s biggest stars, these sales were made on the U.S. iTunes market. “Antares” had been released in the U.S. on November 2, but was scheduled to be released in China four days later.
Chinese fans would have needed to use VPN manipulation in order to use the U.S. iTunes service. Then, they would have needed to buy/stream the album in droves that seem outlandish for even American artists to engender. All of this without significant streaming numbers. All of this has worked to cement Kris Wu’s name into American audience; not without resistance from stans, of course, but a little controversy might go a long way.
Scooter has since gone out of his way to communicate with Wu and clear his name, swearing by the importance of diversity and the success of the former K-Pop boyband star. “I have never wished anything bad for Kris nor any other artist and those saying otherwise are wrong,” said he. “Any fans of anyone I manage who are using this opportunity to spread any sort of division or racism are dead wrong and I won’t stand for it.”
Indeed, lost in the kerfuffle is Kris Wu’s identity and star power, as evidenced ironically by the #KrisWho campaign launched by Arianators in the wake of this “controversy.” The 28-year old EXO star lived in Canada at a young age and speaks English fluently. He left EXO due to creative restrictions in 2013; he doesn’t talk to or associate with his ex-bandmates. He’s carving a bit of a Jay Park lane for himself: the K-Pop market too saturated to hold his sharply-edged star or his love of hip hop. He has 27 million Weibo followers. He performed during Super Bowl festivities this year, the first Chinese star to do so. He’s wearing increasingly expensive clothing and some of his fans aren’t too pleased with it.
His new album, “Antares,” is an amalgamation of pop albums you’re likely already familiar with. Ex-boyband star makes edgy solo debut album. Pop star makes melodic crossover hip hop record in the wake of hip hop becoming the world’s most popular genre. Star in Asian continent makes crossover English-speaking record with a host of expensive American features to add “legitimacy.” Pretty boy rap star wants to treat you right, but he might just be a little too bad and boujee for you.
He hits all the notes; the melodies and beats are all programmed well. After a strong start, including the Murda Beatz-engineered “November Rain,” the tracks start to lose steam. It’s hard to learn much about Kris and his story; the tracks are lyrically pretty run of the mill. “Yeah we come alive, you feel the vibe/Live it up, I feel alive” croons Wu on “We Alive.” At times the songs are written as if they are products of a machine that churns out ubiquitous pop rap phrases.
Perhaps nothing feels more indicative of the yin/yang of “Antares” than the robust stylistic similarities between its tracks to headline American rap artists. Travis Scott is only featured on one track on this record, the ass-shaking “Deserve,” but his presence as an influence on Wu is pervasive on this record to the point where one is left unsure that some of these tracks are not based on leftover demos from Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight. “We Alive” seems obviously influenced by Travis’ “Antidote,” with its ominous guitar loop, dramatic drops and aggressive auto-tuning down to the adlibs. It’s the work of the same producer, Toronto’s WondaGurl, that did Travis’ track: yet this feels more like an easy check for her than an empowering cosign.
But there’s something charming about the influences. It doesn’t feel nearly as dated or out of touch when an Asian artist makes use of hip hop and pop in a style that genuinely lifts from the genre’s best and brightest. And clearly, Wu has an edge to him; he’s attracted to the right things. It just seems he still needs time to make them his own in order to carve a unique path in the American market.
Regardless, his hordes of fans will have his support. But is that support helpful? Today’s social climate demands more attentiveness to diversity, but how hard do we need to be on Ariana Grande for merely picking a dumb fight over sales? In the wake of “cancel culture” conversations, Stan Twitter continues to seem more like an area for fanbases to attack an artist’s competition than a support group for the artists themselves.
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