Cool Jay

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It's not as if Chou introduced R. and B. to the region—David Tao and Wang Lee Hom have both been around for a while—but it wasn't until Chou's debut that waves of Mando-rappers and crooning R. and B. singers took over MTV Taiwan. "Chou is definitely setting musical trends," says Hong Kong-based Ming Pao Weekly music critic Fung Lai-chi.

His success as a singer-songwriter has already inspired dozens of imitators eager to achieve a similar mixture of street cred and sales sizzle. "The trend is toward more singer-songwriters," says Mark Lankester, managing director of Warner Music Hong Kong. It seems every pretty boy with a guitar is taking up composing; even Canto-pop bad boy Nicholas Tse is now scribbling his own tunes. And then there's Anson Hu, Hong Kong's junior soul man who recently won Best New Artist at the Commercial Radio awards ceremony. "He's copying Jay," says Fung. "He's even being called the new 'Chinese Jay.'"

What makes Chou's music successful, and distinctive from all the boys who would be Jay, is that when he sings that he is hurting or yearning or that he needs you so bad, you believe him. His delivery is Boyz II Men-smooth, and he hits those notes with a conviction born of having proved himself as a songwriter. Remember, he spent nearly two years in that studio watching and hearing what worked and what didn't, and the results of that dues paying are a confidence and a swagger that comes across on disc. On CDs like Jay, Fantasy Life and Eight Dimensions, you're listening to a man who believes in the musical choices he is making, who knows he is right. He is not singing what some manager in an office somewhere has told him will be a hit; he is singing his heart out, right now, for you.

Chou wants the ball. He's a hoops fiend, and he swears that the only two places he's comfortable are in the studio and on the basketball court. He takes a break from the 64-track and heads out to Taipei's Ta An Park, where he and a few friends have a regular game. It's concrete-court, no-holds-barred pickup—tall guys banging under the rim, small guys at the top or on the wing. Everyone launching jumpers. The only pass anyone wants to make is the one to inbound the ball. But even here Chou seems different. John Stockton-skinny with mad dribbles, he's a point guard among other players, who, no matter where they are on the court, seem perpetually out of position. The game, even at this level, flows through him. He hits open threes, makes behind-the-back dribbles to the rack for easy layups. Chou knows exactly what he wants to do with the ball.

So there's this, too. You see it when he plays. He's a control freak. That's why he doesn't like interviews or awards ceremonies, why he's shy and awkward around his fans, because he doesn't know how to control those settings. But on the court, in the studio, he's the show runner.

No other ethnic-Chinese idol enjoys the level of artistic and creative control over his or her albums and videos that Chou does. According to those who work with him, Chou knows exactly what he wants when it comes to his sound, and he is relentless about achieving it. In order to write one of his hits, Shuan Ji Gun (Nunchaku), he actually taught himself to use the martial art weapon and then appeared with it in the video. Kuang Sheng, who has directed the majority of Chou's videos, says he follows the star's instructions: "Chou has more control than other artists over his own videos. And over time, he is only becoming more controlling."

A month later and Chou is lounging in a swanky Chinese restaurant after his packed-house performance at the MGM Grand. Still wearing his sweaty tank top and carefully scuffed jeans, he seems contemplative, as if he is finally impressed by the enormity of his own achievements. There are a few more worlds for this show-biz Alexander to conquer: TV, movies, going global and hitting the U.S. charts. But Chou seems indifferent to learning English, unconcerned with the producers who beseech him to make a film and, finally, more comfortable and less anxious with the demands of his celebrity. He is growing into the role now, his diao, apparently, has taken him this far and he has learned to trust it. There will be enormous demands placed on this 24-year-old, forces of commerce tugging at him to do this commercial, that magazine shoot, this action picture. Kung fu master or rogue cop? R. and B. or hip-hop? Nike or Adidas?

He shakes his head. The first thing he's going to do is head back to that Taipei studio, to that little nook behind the sofa, where he will lie back, take a nap, and dream up a few more tunes.

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