You don’t get to 49 million followers without a few haters. That’s Kris Wu’s following on Chinese social media platform Weibo.
With an impressive collection of memes, diss tracks and failed freestyles to his name, pop star Kris Wu is as polarizing as he is popular. From igniting a fan war with Arianators to starting beef with the underground rap scene, the Chinese-Canadian singer-songwriter is no stranger to controversy; his every move invites scrutiny and speculation.
But love him or hate him, you can’t ignore him. The 29-year-old has dominated China’s entertainment industry: starring in blockbusters, topping music charts, and modeling for major brands — often as the “first Chinese” to do so. More recently, he helped usher in a new era of hip hop at the helm of the hit TV show The Rap of China.
Now, after a cheeky collaboration with former EXO bandmate Luhan, he’s dropping a new EP — Testing — on April 22, a follow up to his heavily autotuned debut album Antares. Over the weekend of April 18-19, Testing was pre-ordered an incredible 1 million times in just 87 minutes on Tencent’s streaming platform QQ Music, while related hashtags spurred by his 49 million followers on the Twitter-like Weibo gained tens of thousands of views.
So, who is Kris Wu? Here’s what you need to know about the multifaceted star — and his impact on the Chinese entertainment industry.
Initially, Wu wanted to kill it on the court, not the stage.
“I moved to Vancouver when I was 10 years old, and I got into hip hop because of basketball,” the Guangzhou-born Chinese-Canadian star told Forbes around the release of his debut album. “I loved basketball so much I wanted to be a professional basketball player.”
While he’d eventually shoot hoops at the NBA All-Star Celebrity Games and even perform at the Super Bowl, his professional sports dreams never made it further than becoming captain of a provincial team in British Columbia.
“At some point I stopped growing,” explained Wu, who stands at 6 feet 2 inches tall. “So at the age of 18, when I was about to graduate, go to university, I was a little lost.”
It was around this time that he and his friends decided to audition for SM Entertainment, the company behind K-pop heavyweights Super Junior and Girls’ Generation. After demonstrating his singing and popping abilities, the label invited him to train in South Korea.
In 2012, Wu officially debuted as one of the 12 members of K-pop group EXO and served as captain of the Chinese subgroup EXO-M, alongside now-household names such as Luhan and Lay Zhang. The sextet shimmied their way to international stardom with earworms like “Overdose” and “Mama.”
Unfortunately, commercial success didn’t spell personal fulfillment. Two years later Wu filed a lawsuit against the agency to terminate his contract on the basis of unfair treatment — Luhan and Huang Zitao soon followed. A bitter legal battle ensued, and SM Entertainment was granted management rights over Wu in Korea and Japan until 2022.
Wu’s stint with EXO is worth noting for two reasons. First, as Foreign Policy writes, the group “singlehandedly blew open the door for Korean idol culture in China.” And second, Wu’s departure and the subsequent dissolution of EXO-M “brought about a paradigm shift in the way Korean entertainment agencies handle their Chinese idols.”
In other words, Korean agencies saw how China’s newly minted K-pop fans welcomed the ex-EXO members with open arms, and tweaked their China strategy as a result, releasing more Chinese artists back into their home country to develop their solo careers — and their management’s wallets. Today, there’s no shortage of Korean-trained acts geared to woo China, from WayV to Boy Story.
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With his boyband career cut short, Wu turned his attention to the big screen.
“I started obviously doing music in Korea, but the thing working there, you kind of have to do whatever the company tells you,” Wu was quoted on CNN. “I really had no freedom when it came to music […] but that’s probably why I tried acting.”
In 2015, he made his acting debut in the romantic drama Somewhere Only We Know. Since then, he’s tackled a range of roles, from a drag racing youth in the Fast and Furious-esque Mr. Six to the legendary monk Tang Sanzang in Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back.
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Despite mixed reviews of his acting, Hollywood was willing to bank on Wu’s cross-border appeal. And it paid off: in 2017, Wu was cast in xXx: Return of Xander Cage which opened to a whopping 61.9 million USD in China, the world’s second largest box office territory, and easily outpaced the movie’s entire North America performance.
At the same time, Wu was proving just how powerful celebrity endorsements — and China’s fan economy — can be.
With Burberry’s China sales in a slump, the British fashion house knew it needed to shake things up. In October 2016 they appointed Wu as their first Chinese ambassador, and worked together to curate five looks for men, dubbed the “Kris Wu Edit.” His fan base mobilized, and in the first quarter Burberry saw a mid-teens percentage growth in the mainland.
“In the past you wouldn’t imagine someone at my age working with Burberry or Bvlgari because they have a long history and are such classic brands,” Kris told Hypebeast. “I like the contrast; I think it’s interesting. They already have older customers, they already have that market and they want to explore new markets, younger markets, and that’s what I can offer them. I think it’s a win-win situation.”
And this younger market shouldn’t be underestimated. As Business of Fashion points out, “The under-35 demographic accounts for 65 percent of consumption growth in China, and [Boston Consulting Group] anticipates that China’s Millennial consumption will continue to grow at an annual rate of 11 percent until 2021 — twice the rate of consumers older than 35.”
Other legacy brands followed suit. Looking to re-energize the world of watches, Bvlgari named Wu a brand ambassador in 2017, stating that he’s a xiaoxianrou, or young heartthrob, with staying power.
“There is a crazy trend about him, but it’s more than that,” Antoine Pin, former managing director of Bvlgari Greater China and Australia, said of Wu. “He’s not just ‘little fresh meat’, he’s ‘fresh meat’ with a future… He can be very good aging meat…”
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Arguably, the biggest role Wu has played to date is not that of leading man or McDonald’s model, but as a judge on The Rap of China.
Premiering in June 2017, iQIYI’s rap reality contest was instrumental in elevating Chinese hip hop from the underground to the commercial mainstream. It was the first show on a major platform to consistently showcase the genre, and its lineup of celebrity judges proved a powerful formula for views — 1.3 billion, in fact, in just over a month — with Wu largely responsible for roping in the mainstream millennial demographic.
“But why hip hop blew up is because there is a lot of young people in China,” Wu told Forbes. “There’s an urge, that they want to express themselves. In China, it’s very different. Your parents, your family, it’s very traditional and conservative. They want to kind of break loose.”
However, as the show gained traction, laymen and established rappers alike emerged to question Wu’s hip hop credentials. His catchphrases, “Can you freestyle?” and “Skr Skr,” entered the cultural lexicon as major memes, while rapper after rapper lined up to take pot shots at the former boyband star. Wu retaliated in true hip hop fashion: with a diss track of his own.
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When he wasn’t cultivating fresh rap talent, Wu was working to win over another market: the United States.
While Wu had a few singles under his belt — including the Xander Cage soundtracking “Juice” — he only began topping US charts in October 2017 when he dropped “Deserve” with Travis Scott. Described by Billboard as a “trap-laden banger built to be played in clubs around the world,” “Deserve” placed number 1 on the US iTunes chart, making Wu the first-ever Chinese artist to achieve the feat.
It seemed an unlikely feat — RADII even predicted we wouldn’t see this again. We were wrong. When his debut studio album, Antares, was released in November 2018, Wu not only secured the top seven spots on the US iTunes downloads chart but even replaced Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” at the summit.
Grande fans were not happy to say the least, with some alleging Wu had “stolen” the top spot. A fan war soon emerged, and allegations that Wu’s followers had used bots to artificially boost the album’s sale performance led to its removal from the iTunes Top 200. Even Scooter Braun, Grande’s manager, got involved with the criticism, before walking his comments back in a lengthy statement on Instagram claiming that Wu’s eager Chinese fans had purchased his music via the US iTunes store ahead of its China release.
Beast Mode🔥 all the way up #antares #1 pic.twitter.com/BrHtCtSJ62
— Kris Wu (@KrisWu) November 2, 2018
Beast Mode🔥 all the way up #antares #1 pic.twitter.com/BrHtCtSJ62
— Kris Wu (@KrisWu) November 2, 2018
Though its sales ultimately didn’t count toward the US charts, Antares certainly brought Wu plenty of attention Stateside. Yet the incident was perhaps not quite what he had in mind when he attempted to position himself as the poster boy for Chinese pop music going global.
“I would pretty much be the first one to really be able to represent music, what’s going on in China,” Wu, who is signed to Universal Music Group, told Forbes. “’Cause, obviously, there are great movie actors like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, these legendary people. But when you talk about music, there hasn’t been much.”
Since the album’s release, Wu has dropped a handful of singles that combine Chinese folk music and hip hop beats, a blend that he has spent much of the last two Rap of China seasons advocating for as he seeks to bridge “the East” and “West” through music. He’s also seemingly become more self-aware, rolling with some of the criticism that has been flung his way by “real” rappers and even turning his misfires into hits, such as with his noodle freestyle:
Yin: Kris Wu Turns Humiliating Noodle Freestyle Into Studio Masterpiece
Memes aside, Kris Wu’s ascent to superstardom mirrors several cultural trends: the Korean Wave reemerging in China, the rise of “little fresh meat” and the fan economy, Hollywood pandering to the Chinese box office, and the expansion of Asian (not just Asian-American) representation in US and European markets.
Whether he’ll truly achieve his international dreams remains to be seen, but his appeal in China appears to be untouchable for now. When “Aurora,” the first single from new EP Testing, dropped on April 15 it went straight into the pop top 10 on key streaming platform QQ Music. It also came with a special spin-off “Aurora water” product from cosmetics brand Lancôme.
He may still be testing the waters overseas, but Wu’s star seems unlikely to fade in China any time soon.
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