Ex-K pop star set to crack the US

Story highlights

Kris Wu got his start with the popular Korean-Chinese pop band, EXO.

The Canadian-Chinese artist starred in multiple movies, including "xXx: Return of Xander Cage."

Kris Wu's latest single "Deserve" rose to No. 1 on the U.S. iTunes Top Songs Chart.

CNN  — 

His face is plastered across billboards in China, but when Kris Wu participated in the NBA All-Star Celebrity Basketball Game in Toronto last year, fellow stars had no idea who he was.

“Toronto is obviously Drake city,” said Wu about the popular rapper and team coach. “It’s his hometown, but I had more fans than him … so pretty much everyone was like who is this guy?”

Terrence Jenkins of Team USA and Kris Wu of Team Canada during the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game in 2016 in Toronto.

The Chinese-Canadian artist is hard to miss these days. After getting his start in the very popular Korean-Chinese pop group EXO, the 6-foot-plus star has gone solo, starring in multiple movies in China and Hollywood, modeling for such brands as Burberry and judging a popular Chinese reality show.

Now he’s casting for a complete crossover, working on a new English-language album set for next year. Collaborators include Houston rapper, Travis Scott. The two just released “Deserve,” a club-banging single which rose to No. 1 on the US iTunes Top Songs Chart within three hours of release in October.

“I always wanted to be a youth influencer,” said Wu, 27. “Working with Travis, I felt like we had a similar vision …. We kind of clicked right away because of it.”

Wu also worked with mega-producer Pharrell Williams. Wu and Williams will be performing at Alibaba’s 11.11 Countdown Gala Celebration in Shanghai on Nov. 10, which leads up to the tech company’s online shopping festival on Nov. 11. The red carpet event will be live-streamed on Alibaba’s Taobao app and broadcast on Chinese television.

“When they ask who is your biggest influence, I always say Pharrell, whether it is music or fashion, I’m a big fan,” said Wu, who talked by phone on the third night of working with Williams in Los Angeles.

Wu is no stranger to fashion himself, promoting such brands as Burberry, Bulgari, Beats by Dre, Mercedes-Benz and American Express. A Barclays’ luxury goods analyst even suggested that Wu boosted sales for Burberry last year.

According to Tamar Herman, who covers K-pop for Billboard.com, Wu has the perfect set of attributes in an industry increasingly looking to drive profits beyond national boundaries.

“He acts, he sings, and he does each with just the right amount of ‘fusion’ flair, so-to-speak, that he seems like the perfect crossover candidate,” said Herman, who cited Wu spending part of his youth in Canada, debuting in the K-pop industry, and becoming a visible young artist in the Chinese entertainment world, as proof of his mass appeal.

His credits also include a judging stint on the summer reality show hit, “The Rap of China,” whose weekly viewership was in the billions.

“I love hip hop music, and would do anything to help the culture blow up in China, because it’s been so underground,” said Wu, who got into hip hop through his love of basketball, and players like Allen Iverson, a known hip-hop icon. “I just want people know how good this culture is, how good the music is and how it can change your life.”

The freedom of hip hop appealed to Wu, who got his start in the very controlled world of Korean pop.

At 18, he went to an audition in Canada with a friend and was picked instead. Wu moved to South Korean to train and join EXO, a boy band whose global popularity has been compared to One Direction. But, in 2014, Wu left the group, suing the label to terminate his exclusive contract, claiming they overworked him.

“I started obviously doing music in Korea, but the thing working there, you kind of have to do whatever the company tells you,” said Wu, who was born in Guangzhou, grew up in Vancouver and is now based in Beijing. “I really had no freedom when it came to music … but that’s probably why I tried acting.”

Wu punched out around eight movies in the last two years, including the Chinese hits “Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back” and “The Mermaid,” plus Hollywood blockbuster “xXx: Return of Xander Cage.”

“I’m a hardworking man,” said Wu. “I’m very focused, when comes to things, I always want to be a pioneer, so I’m a risk taker for sure.”

Though he later adds that he is “super tired,” due to a self-imposed relentless schedule. “I’m drained for the past two years, that’s why I’ve been pushing a lot of projects to the side to make room for my music.”

His past influences include more West Coast rap like Snoop Dogg, plus 50 Cent and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. And his upcoming album will feature songs with Chinese and English versions.

“I don’t want to be coming here targeting Asian audiences,” said Wu about his own return journey to the West. “My approach is basically to be able to link the East and the West and give people the sound that they are used to and that they can understand.”