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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Here's some music trivia for you: Who is the first Asian-American to release a solo rap album on a major label in the U.S. Can you use a hint?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEARN CHINESE")

JIN: (Singing) Yeah, I'm Chinese, and what? Yeah, you know who this is - Jin. And let me tell you this: The days of the pork fried rice and the chicken wings coming to your house by me is over.

SIMON: His name is Jin. And he's not trivial. Jin has sold thousands of records, won awards, and appeared in TV shows and movies in Hong Kong. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on how the Chinese-American rapper from Miami got a second chance at stardom on the other side of the world.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Jin grew up in Miami with a few different names.

JIN: My name is Jin Auyueng - that's my full name. And my Chinese name is Auyueng Jing.

WANG: He was also known as...

JIN: The Chinese kid that raps.

WANG: A reputation he developed as a high schooler after frequenting local talent shows and rapping competitions, where he says...

JIN: There was the inevitable elephant in the room, so to speak, 'cause everybody's like hold up, hold up. That Chinese kid is going to go on stage and rap? (Singing) Yeah, I'm Chinese. Now you understand it. I'm the reason that his little sister's eyes are slanted. If you make one joke about race or karate, NYPD be in Chinatown searching for your body.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right. There it is.

WANG: That was Jin about ten years ago, just 19 years old, on the verge of his big break, live on BET, Black Entertainment Television. Jin competed in freestyle rap battles. And for seven consecutive weeks, he dominated, fending off his challengers' ethnic insults with rapid-fire retorts. His success led to his signing with the hip-hop label Ruff Ryders in 2002 as the first mainstream Asian-American rapper. And it set the entertainment world abuzz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JIN: I thought I was heading to the moon. Everybody was writing about me. I'm appearing on ESPN. I was in movies, you know, "Entertainment Tonight." And I allowed myself to believe that I'm here.

WANG: In reality, here wasn't exactly what Jin had in mind. There was a two-year delay before his debut album "The Rest is History" was finally released. It peaked at just 54 on the Billboard 200 album chart.

JIN: The reception and the album sales just did not live up to the hype.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JEFF CHANG: Oftentimes, history isn't kind to the people who break down the doors.

WANG: Jeff Chang is a former music journalist who's followed Jin's career. He now runs Stanford University's Institute for Diversity in the Arts.

CHANG: Jin was trying basically to break the old mold of Asian-Americans, you know, being sort of kung-fu artists or being the folks who kind of stood in the background to play the supporting role. And so, you know, it might have simply been a case of Jin being there too early.

WANG: Chang says Jin may have also been too late. His career started at the tail end of hip-hop's dominance of pop music in America. As for Jin's own theory about what went wrong, he points to one main factor.

JIN: And that was the music. The album lacked direction because at that time, I didn't have direction in my life.

WANG: It took a few years before Jin found a direction that would restart his career. And it happened unexpectedly - when he went back to the basics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

JIN: (Singing) ABC, (Foreign language spoken)

WANG: This is the title track from Jin's first rap album in Cantonese. That's the Chinese dialect he grew up speaking with his immigrant parents. Jin named the album "ABC" - not after the alphabet. It's shorthand for American-born Chinese, like himself. The album's lyrics often touch on what it means to be an "ABC," an outsider both in mainstream American society and in the Chinese community. Jin had thought about recording a Cantonese album for a long time. But he always brushed off the idea, until 2007, when it seemed like his career had completely stalled.

JIN: I was like, well, there's really nothing else left. I don't have anything else to do. So, I recorded it with the intentions of releasing it.

WANG: Just as a small independent project in the U.S. And soon, record executives in Hong Kong came calling. They saw an opportunity for Jin to tap into a growing local hip-hop scene.

JIN: I went out there - three months turned into six months, six months turned into a year, a year turned into two, to three, and I've been there for four years now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hong Kong superstar.

WANG: Jin's become a household name in Hong Kong - and not just for his rapping skills, according to Ben Sin, a journalist who covers music there.

BEN SIN: I see him on TV shows and movies a lot. So, he's completely branched out like most Hong Kong celebrities into just a full-on entertainer. He's not just a rapper anymore.

WANG: Sin says Jin's relatively smooth entry into Hong Kong's entertainment world is partly because of the significant influence hip-hop still has on Asian pop music.

SIN: And I think the fact that he competed in rap competitions with black people was a big selling point at the time. They were just showing clips of it and then cut back to reactions of Hong Kong people going like, oh my God. Like, he was rapping with black people, you know. So, it was a bit playing into the stereotype at first.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: Now, at age 30, recently married and a new father, Jin's come home - back to the U.S. - ready to tackle another stereotype, the has-been musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRAND NEW ME")

JIN: (Singing) How you doing? You might not recognize me. But guess what? That don't even surprise me. Lately, I've been through so much, but as you can see I ain't lose my touch.

WANG: Jin hopes his latest single, "Brand New Me," from his new English-language EP will reintroduce him to an American audience. Jin also recently put out a free album of faith-based music. It's yet another reinvention for the rapper, who's now eager to share his new identity as a born-again Christian.

JIN: You know, I'm conveying and proclaiming, you know what? This is where I'm at. This is where my mindset is.

WANG: The mindset of the Chinese kid who raps and is all grown up. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRAND NEW ME")

JIN: (Singing) Me and my crew, feeling like, feeling like, I'm brand new. You know how I, I, I...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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