When Wyclef Jean and 22-year-old Chinese American rapper Jin tha MC chose “Learn Chinese” as their first joint from Jin’s debut album, The Rest Is History, they wondered: What’s the first thing listeners will focus on? “[That] I’m Chinese,” Jin flatly told The Source. “So if that’s what they want, we’ll give it to them.”
In rap’s post-Eminem universe, being white can be an easier hurdle to surmount than being perceived as a foreigner. It’s a despairing truth that Asian Americans continue to face racial jeers voiced by both blacks and whites with an ease that’d be unthinkable today against other minorities. Amplified in the MC battle arena where every topic is up for grabs, Miami-born Queens resident Jin regularly faced lyrics attempting to shame him specifically for his ethnicity. Rap verse message boards recorded anti-Jin taunts like, “You squint your eyes and you look deceitful/That’s why God hates Chinese people.”
Only against this backdrop can Jin’s lyrical directness be fully appreciated: “Yeah, I’m Chinese/ And what?” and “Y’all gonna wanna be Chinese,” a long-awaited rush of self-vindication. Quasi-Eastern riffs and an egg foo yung reference are wincing to hear, but it’s hard not to be moved by the fierceness of Jin’s tone, deftly canvassing topics like toiling for his immigrant parents (“Think we open restaurants ‘cuz we cook good?”) and the forgotten slavery of Asian Americans (“Every time they harass me, I wanna explode/We should ride the train for free, we built the railroads”). Self-references like “original chinky-eyed emcee” and “Chinaman” initially feel jarring; but surprisingly, Jin’s visceral rage and proud swagger reclaim these slurs the way black rappers use nigga: He makes them his own.
Pricey production talent like Kanye West and Wyclef Jean lend The Rest Is History beats of the highly polished, accessible kind, moving easily from bass-throbbing club hooks to softer r&b caresses. It’s catchy fare, but how many people will hear it? Even after a record-breaking seven consecutive wins on BET’s punishing freestyle arena on 106 & Park, Jin’s toughest battle lies ahead: reversing stereotypes and their impact upon Jin’s sales appeal as a spitter. On triumphing over prejudice, Jin told The Source, “I just want people to know I’m coming, and when they do find out, the rest is history.” It’s the kind of confidence only a 22-year-old can have. Or maybe it’s a promise made by a determined adult, looking beyond his own racially challenged times.