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On 'ALPHA,' CL finishes what she started

On <em>ALPHA</em>, her debut album, K-pop artist CL sounds determined and confident despite years of industry setbacks.
On <em>ALPHA</em>, her debut album, K-pop artist CL sounds determined and confident despite years of industry setbacks.

In "My Way," off her Oct. 20 debut ALPHA, CL sings, "아직 해줄 말이 많은데 (I still have a lot to say) / But I just wanna talk in my way." The K-pop artist born Lee Chae-rin sounds determined, which is reassuring, considering the near-decade of fanfare — and years of radio silence — leading up to this moment.

CL grew accustomed to landmark success with her former girl group, YG Entertainment's 2NE1 (pronounced "21," as in this century). Touted as "pioneers" by will.i.am., 2NE1 was the first K-pop girl group to tour worldwide. In 2014, 2NE1 set an early record for the biggest sales week for a K-pop group in Billboard history, with its best (and ultimately final) album Crush. At the heart of its tough-girl image, indebted to punk and rap signifers, was 2NE1's spitfire CL, who declared herself "the baddest female Seoul City ever had." And she appeared every bit as confident as plans for her solo U.S. debut fell into place. She inked a U.S. management deal with Scooter Braun's SB Projects. She collaborated with Diplo and Skrillex, and received top-tier video treatments by Dave Meyers and choreographer Parris Goebel.

Yet even after several solo singles, CL's debut failed to materialize. Several journalists made valiant efforts to investigate what happened, as K-pop's Western takeover finally seemed imminent. CL's debut was supposed to be part of that larger global transition, when differences in language and culture no longer seemed to matter. (Meanwhile, YG Entertainment debuted its next girl group, BLACKPINK, to immediate comparisons to 2NE1.) Instead, in 2019 CL left YG Entertainment and released In the Name of Love, an EP of ballads where she never sounded more heartbroken. She hinted at, but wouldn't explain, disagreements between her Korean and U.S. management. "Everyone was excited. But no one knew what to do," she told Billboard. No one, that is, except for CL. Last year, CL founded her indie label Very Cherry (the word "cherry" sounding similar to CL's name, Chae-rin) to release her debut at last.

The first voice heard in ALPHA doesn't belong to CL, but to actor John Malkovich, who befriended the artist when she scored a bit role in 2018's action thriller Mile 22. Yet what he says ("Excuse me? Do you have that sauce that is spicy, made in Korea?") instantly relays that CL, in fact, is back. Malkovich introduces "Spicy," which CL says was "written to be an extension" of early solo singles like 2013's punchy "The Baddest Female" and 2015's "Hello B******." Those songs in particular introduced the sound — a bold, globally-sourced hybrid of pop, rap, R&B and EDM — that CL refines in ALPHA. The production is updated, to reflect how 21st century music has evolved since the days of 2NE1: "Spicy" boasts bass music collaborators Baauer and Holly. And Travis Scott-inspired "Paradise," with its gravitas and modern use of Auto-Tune, comes courtesy of two producers Scott worked with before, J Gramm and Rogét Chahayed. Overall, though, ALPHA rewards longtime listeners with plenty of CL's patented "bad b****** anthems" — pounding, assertive songs that beg for dance breaks, like "Chuck," "Tie a Cherry," "My Way" and "HWA."

For years, fans and critics were left to speculate over teary TV interviews and analyze her social media behavior, for some explanation behind her relative silence — at least, one more satisfying than "There's not one person. It's not one thing. It's nobody's 'fault.'" "If CL can find a way to use music to reflect on her own complex life story, including her industry struggles, it's probable that her songs will have a better shot at connecting with listeners," The FADER's Owen Myers wrote in 2018, on CL's "somewhat impersonal" English-language music by then.

But on ALPHA, CL expects her confidence itself to speak volumes. She might not open up as much as critics like Myers would like, but CL isn't interested in rehashing the past. She maintains her stance in recent interviews, which is to not pay YG any mind, at least more than she has before. Self-empowerment remains the goal, including in songs that aren't necessarily "bad b****** anthems." Jaunty pop-rock ballad "Let It" is the type of song where listeners might expect CL to just be featured, to add a dose of attitude rather than carry the whole thing. Instead, CL sings, "오늘도 계속해서 걷긴 걷는데 / 제자리인 거 같을까 매일 또 나는 왜 / 이제 누가 또 뭐랬는지, 누가 또 뭐래는지 / 쓸때없는 걱정들만 하는게" ("I keep walking today, I keep walking / why do I feel like I'm in the same place every day / now who said what, who else said / just worrying about useless things"). CL says that she wrote it as a letter to self, reassuring that "it's OK to chill out and go with the flow." We should know by now why CL would need to tell herself that.

"Let It" was inspired by Bruce Lee's infamous saying to "be formless, shapeless, like water," or to embrace fluidity in all aspects of life. As ever, CL thrives when she balances hip-hop savvy with palpable Asian, if not Korean, pride. This has been a tricky balance for K-pop, as its artists mined Black American music for inspiration while feigning ignorance over their racial mimicry. (CL's own "The Baddest Female" video is tough to watch, least of all because she sports bamboo earrings and a grill.) CL's 2016 debut English-language single "Lifted" interpolates several parts from Wu-Tang Clan's 1993 classic "Method Man," while the Dave Meyers-directed visual casts CL in a throwback New York hip-hop music video. "Lifted" doesn't have the blatant blackface that K-pop has been guilty of before. And it was tougher to accuse CL of cultural appropriation when Method Man himself appeared in its video. But at the very least, "Lifted" felt like CL was trying to fully assimilate into American culture.

Meanwhile, ALPHA arrives two years after CL showed support for Black Lives Matter and called on the K-pop industry and fans to "give back and show support for all that we have received from Black artists." Moreover, for her new album, CL fine-tunes that balance between who she is and where she mines inspiration. Being that "sauce that is spicy, made in Korea," of course, is CL's twist on what hip-hop in recent years has demanded in spades. She is the wave who is "flowing like water," who feels like World Golf Hall of Famer Pak Se-ri. In the fiery hip-hop "HWA," CL is not only conquering K-Town and Seoul City, but she compares herself to South Korea's national flower. "무궁화 꽃이 피었습니다" ("Mugunghwa has bloomed"), she raps. CL is being reverent, though with sneering vocals, as if to show no signs of fading. Surely this is what the folks behind CL all those years ago thought she couldn't do.

CL may never fully disclose what happened behind the scenes to delay her solo arrival for nearly a decade. But if ALPHA is any indication, it wasn't for lack of ideas or due to some identity crisis, over how she could stake her claim in music history. Years after she introduced herself as "the Baddest Female," she maintains her role as an 언니, or the older sister, of this cross-cultural moment in today's pop music. CL's reintroduction is strong enough to appease longtime fans, but also possibly stoke curiosity from an audience who may not yet understand her role in K-pop's global takeover but is more receptive to K-pop than ever. As ever, CL's trademark confidence and global ambitions remain intact. Only this time, with how much time has passed, her boasts — in Korean and English — have never felt more earned.

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