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POP MUSIC

Race might attract the interest, but Jin focuses on his rhymes

NEW YORK -- As rap stars go, Jin has the typical look down cold: hoodie, baggy sweats, chunky diamond stud earring, a Chinese character tattooed on his neck, and a large blingy necklace. Not everything's typical, though.

"Yeah, I'm Chinese. And what?" he asks with mock exasperation.

At just 22, the Miami-bred, New York-based rapper is something of a pioneer: the first Asian-American hip-hop artist to get a major solo record deal. At the same time, he worries that it's his race, not his rhymes, generating all the attention.

"Being Asian helps me so much," he says. "It definitely raises the interest level. But for every three steps forward, it's five back because being the ethnicity that I am completely overshadows what I'm bringing to the table."

What he brings on his debut album, "The Rest Is History," is a mix of songs that smack of old-school hip-hop's wit and optimism, delivered with a flow and tone similar to Eminem's.

The CD is also full of references to Jin's roots, including mentions of the Great Wall of China, basketball big man Yao Ming, China's forced-adoption policy, Tiananmen Square, and the struggle of Asian immigrants.

"Them sneakers on your feet cost 100 a pop/My people making 15 cents a day in sweatshops/To make them kicks so you can look good/Think we open restaurants 'cause we cook good?" he raps in one song.

"I'm very adamant about promoting Asian culture," Jin says. "It's a hip-hop record that's never been done. I'm pretty much promoting Asian culture and tying it in with hip-hop."

Consumers have so far given a lukewarm embrace to the rapper, who earned his reputation as a freestyle battler. His album hit the Billboard Top 200 at No. 54 in October with some 20,000 units sold, then dropped precipitously.

"I don't believe Jin is a flash in the pan," says Lionel Ridenour, who, as Virgin Records' executive vice president of urban music, is helping develop Jin. "I think that he's only begun to scratch the surface. It's all about consistency."

In person, Jin's personality quickly undermines his tough-guy look. He politely turns off his cellphone before chatting and acknowledges that he cries at Disney movies. An entire song on his album, "Thank You," is a list of all the people he loves. And he likes chatting with fans on the Internet, despite being told by his managers that such closeness undermines his mystique.

"I don't think you have to be a certain way to be a rapper. I am who I am. I'm not a tough guy. But I have a lot of heart in what I do," he says. "Sensitivity is a real part of me. I'm a real human being.

"You know how there's the term, 'Keeping it real'?" he asks. "The people that understand the concept realize that being real is not going to jail. Being real is not being the guy who pulls out a gun. That's not being real. The true definition is really just being who you are."

The rapper -- born Jin Au-Yeung -- fell in love with hip-hop on the streets of Miami, where he honed his lyrical skills in head-to-head rhyming contests while making food deliveries from his family's Chinese restaurant.

He eventually gained national attention in BET's "106th & Park" rap freestyle competition, outlasting all rivals for seven consecutive weeks with a blend of cheeky and innovative rhymes.

After moving to New York, Jin was signed to the Ruff Ryders label -- hence the diamond double-R necklace around his neck -- and won a role opposite Tyrese and Ludacris in John Singleton's "2 Fast, 2 Furious."

All this before his first CD ever hit record stores. When it did -- enduring more than a dozen blown release dates -- he had brought along some big names for help, including Wyclef Jean and Kanye West.

The first single, "Learn Chinese," is as bombastic and fun as the artist himself. "The days of the pork fried rice and the chicken wings coming to your house by me is over/Y'all gon' learn Chinese," he warns.

Even so, Jin was initially worried. "Automatically, it kind of puts it under the 'gimmick' umbrella," he says. "By the same token, I've encountered people that love the record -- and that's all ethnicities."

If you're still skeptical, Jin understands: He might be, too.

"If I was just a random hip-hop fan, and I saw Jin and I didn't know him, the first thing I would think is, 'Yo, is this guy the truth? Is he serious?' I would question his knowledge of hip-hop," he says.

Which puts Jin in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand, he feels pressure from skeptical non-Asians, eager to question his mainstream hip-hop legitimacy. On the other, he knows he must deliver for his Asian fans.

"Not to feel that I can't live up to the hype, but sometimes I feel like the bar is set so high that even if I am accomplishing something that's great, it doesn't meet the super-sensational great that people want," he says.

"Even within the Asian community, you'd better believe there are people out there who have the mentality, 'Yo, if this guy is a success, he's a success for all of us. We're gonna root and cheer for him.' But you got to believe, though, that they also say, 'If this guy fails, he's holding us all back.' "

As for the future, Jin wants to make more music, more movies, and extend his reach, maybe even flirt with mogul-dom like Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. But, of course, with a twist.

"If I were to branch out, it would be on things that are nontraditional. I would want to be unique. One thing about my whole career now is that it's definitely about breaking new ground."

So maybe we might soon be wearing a hoodie designed by Jin?

"The clothing line is cool and all, but it seems predictable," he says, then takes a sip of water from a cup. Then, with a smile, he adds: "I would do something like, I don't know, paper cups."

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