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To the top of the world

That's the goal of South Korean singer Rain as he sets out to dazzle the U.S.

June 30, 2007|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

GIVEN the brain-numbing consistency with which the two performers are compared, South Korean pop superstar Rain is pretty gracious about being referred to as "the Justin Timberlake of Asia." To a point.

The Seoul-born heartthrob R&B singer-dancer-actor, who has sold millions of records around the globe and whose every public appearance is greeted with messianic enthusiasm by legions of super-fans from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei, is willing to accept being likened to Mr. SexyBack -- as a means to a more self-fulfilling end.

"I'm grateful ... that even before touching the American market, people here refer to me as an artist of his stature," said Rain, whose real name is Jung Ji-Hoon. "But I want to let the fan base know who I am. Once I release my album, people can say, 'Justin Timberlake, he is like an American version of Rain.' "

The curious will be able to judge the K-pop phenom's hip-hop-influenced dance repertoire, crunk-inflected backing beats and washboard abs for themselves tonight, when Rain, 25, headlines at Staples Center. As of press time, more than 80% of the show's tickets had been sold, its promoter said, with fans flying in from as far away as Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong.

In Los Angeles last week, just after having had to postpone dates on his "Rain's Coming" world tour (organizers hadn't anticipated the difficulties of schlepping Rain's 28 18-wheelers' worth of stage rigging and 96-person entourage from Asia to Honolulu to Atlanta to New York to San Francisco inside of two weeks), the 6-foot singer settled into a Century City hotel suite to talk about conquering the American market.

A cadre of Rain's enablers who were also in the room -- publicists, makeup artists, consultants, managers and tour promoters -- nodded quietly and sometimes giggled as he spoke. "Through my work in movies, music and commercials, I've become known as the superstar of Asia," he said through a translator. "My first goal in coming to the U.S. is to become a worldwide superstar."

In a year in which Rain made People magazine's "100 most beautiful people" issue and was voted the world's most influential person by Time magazine readers in an online poll (outranking Steve Jobs and Bono, only to be spoofed by "The Colbert Report's" Stephen Colbert as "Kid Jong Il" for the honor), Rain is attempting to synergize his pan-Asian fan base, Information Age interconnectivity and "fusion" music to win American audiences as no Asian entertainer before him has.

"He's a hot commodity right now," said Andy Kim, chief executive of V2B Global, the promoter of Rain's Staples Center appearance. "He has dedicated fans around the world. Now he's [in] Hollywood. And L.A. has the biggest Korean population in the country."

Toward that end, Rain will make his Hollywood movie debut in a supporting role in the Wachowski brothers' hotly anticipated follow-up to their smash trilogy of "Matrix" films, the action adventure "Speed Racer," which begins filming in Germany next month.

In this adaptation of the Japanese animated series, he will portray ace race car driver Taejo Togokahn, who partners with Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) and Racer X (Matthew Fox) to compete in a drive-or-die cross-country race.

Some of his songs contain smatterings of English, but he is studying the language and plans to record his first album in English soon.

Rain isn't the first Asian superstar to attempt to shatter the glass ceiling of American idolatry. In the mid-'90s, Sony Music signed Canto-pop sensation Coco Lee, who failed to generate much commercial enthusiasm here despite heavy promotion and high-profile appearances, such as singing at the 2001 Academy Awards. Likewise, Japanese soul singer Toshi Kubota's bid at Stateside stardom fizzled in 2000, even with massive press and an American album, "Nothing but Your Love," packed with contributions by neo-soul and hip-hop stars including the Roots' Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, rapper Pras and Raphael Saadiq.

According to James Ryu, editor and publisher of the monthly Korean American magazine KoreAm Journal, Rain's lack of English language skills could become his biggest liability.

"He has to be visible to the public -- not only on the dance floor but in the press, on shows like the 'Today' show and 'Good Morning America,' " Ryu said. "A lot of Hispanic performers did that before him -- even with broken English. One reason he's so popular in Asia is because he does a lot of PR."

Rain hit his first public relations speed bump in this country in February, when Rain Corp. filed a lawsuit challenging his right to use his stage name in this country; the music company claimed it owns the copyright for the long-running Beatles tribute band named Rain.

A Nevada District Court dismissed the case earlier this month, however, and Asia's Justin Timberlake (Rain is a direct translation of Jung's Korean alias, "Bi") is now free to use his stage name in the U.S.

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