"I'm brand new, I'm brand new," Jin Au-yeung, better known by his stage name MC Jin, proclaims repeatedly on the track Brand New Me, featured on his latest English EP of the same name. "Guess what? Even if you don't know me, all you need to know is that I ain't the old me and tomorrow is a brand new day. As long as I got God, everything's OK."
The rapper, born in Miami to parents from Hong Kong, is famed for winning seven consecutive freestyle battles on the American TV network BET's Freestyle Friday programme. But the previously rough-edged rapper responsible for tracks such as Learn Chinese has turned over a new leaf since he became a born-again Christian.
"The type of change and transformation that takes place in a person when God's love and grace is involved can be hard to explain verbally in a sentence or even in a paragraph," he says during filming for a new project in San Jose, California. "2 Corinthians 5:17 in the Bible illustrates this transformation: 'If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come'."
The Brand New Me EP, which topped the local iTunes hip hop chart on its release a couple of months ago, is the rapper's first English-language release in six years. Jin wrote on his blog that the EP, recorded in New York in early 2011, contained six songs not just about the changes he went through in the past few years, but also his devotion to God. And there is a track dedicated to his wife, who gave birth to their first child, a boy, last June.
The EP from the 30-year-old comes after several free downloads such as Sincerely Yours and Crazy Love, Ridiculous Faith, which also contain Christian messages. But Jin's change from gangsta rap to what many hip hop fans consider "Christian rap" has confused many followers who had enjoyed watching him spit out strong language while fighting his opponents in freestyle rap battles back in his early days.
"It's understandable that people want to put things in a genre," Jin says of how his work is now labelled Christian rap. "But as long as the music is being heard by whoever God wants and that he is receiving the glory, nothing else matters."
Jin dreamed of becoming a rapper as a teenager and he shot to fame with those phenomenal performances on Freestyle Friday, which also landed him a deal with hip hop label Ruff Ryders in 2002. He played a mechanic in street racing film 2 Fast 2 Furious in 2003, before putting out his debut English album, The Rest is History, in 2004. Expectations for the album were high, but its singles Learn Chinese and Senorita did not receive much airplay and record sales were disappointing, with only about 19,000 copies sold in the first week.
Jin feels that many of his original supporters then turned on him and the subsequent roller-coaster ride proved too much for the young rapper. In 2005, he left Ruff Ryders and embarked on his independent musical journey. He later revealed to the Gospel Herald that there was a time when he felt his world was falling apart and that he fell into a deep depression.
In 2007, he tried his hand at rapping in Chinese and produced the Cantonese album ABC ("American-born Chinese"). The record, which went down well with his fans in Hong Kong, was re-released here by Universal Music in 2008; it proved to be a crucial turning point in his career. After relocating to the city where his parents were born to explore musical opportunities, he met Chinese-American pastor Jaeson Ma, who inspired him to convert to Christianity.
In the following four years in the city, Jin released a couple of Cantonese-language mixtapes, performed as supporting act at concerts staged by Canto-pop stars such as Eason Chan Yik-shun and Sammi Cheng Sau-man, collaborated with Singaporean producer-singer-songwriter Hanjin Tan on the album Buy 1 Get 1 Free, and released his second Cantonese album, Homecoming.
Jin gradually built up a fanbase in Asia, becoming one of the leading rappers on the Chinese music scene. A range of brands invited him to appear in commercials, which helped introduce hip hop and rap to more people in the city.
"Whatever impact was made was solely by grace of God and I am thankful for the relatively positive reception from the community. Truthfully, I put all my effort into all that I do and cherish every opportunity," the rapper says of how he made an impact on the hip hop scene in Hong Kong.
Jin, who grew up watching Hong Kong movies and TV drama series made by TVB, also appeared in movies such as the award-winning Gallants and Bruce Lee, My Brother, as well as TVB drama series. He hosted a talk show and a music programme on the channel. A 2010 Christmas duet with former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, however, didn't go down well with many fans.
"The acting, the TV dramas and everything else were all great experiences, but it does not compare at all to the experience of God's presence in my life," he says. "What's really stood out to me during my time in Hong Kong these past few years is really what God has been showing me in terms of understanding what his love and grace truly means."
During that period Jin was living in Hong Kong and the US, but over the past nine months he has been spending more time in America because of the birth of his child, but he won't say he is moving back to the US permanently, since "nothing is permanent in life".
"The plan is to just do what I've enjoyed doing and have been doing in the past decade: making music. The main difference now is there is a very clear message and purpose with the music," he says.