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COVER STORY: The Art of Being CL

How K-pop’s Baddest Female reclaimed her throne

Riddhi Chakraborty Nov 12, 2021

On 'Alpha,' the CL born with 2NE1 blends with Chaelin to deliver an album that successfully highlights the strengths of a well-rounded, fearless artist. Photographed by gowontae for Rolling Stone India

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It’s the end of October and CL is completing the promotion cycle for her debut LP, Alpha. The record dropped on the 20th, and the entire month saw the South Korean superstar’s schedule packed full of interviews, fan meetings and live performances–all in celebration of her glorious return to the scene. Each single racked up tens of millions of views on YouTube and the world rejoiced with tweets, articles and reaction videos, but the scale of Alpha’s roaring success hasn’t quite hit the singer-songwriter and rapper just yet. “It feels… I don’t know,” she confesses. “It hasn’t got into me that it’s out, because those are the pictures and videos and everything I’ve been with for so long, that I’ve been preparing. I’ve been in the process very deep. But whenever I can perform it or just talk about it with you guys or my fans, that’s when I kind of feel like it’s happened.” 

While the success of Alpha was expected, it’s also a little unbelievable to have her back onstage. For both CL and her fandom, the GZBz, the time between 2018 to late 2019 was painful. Her former group 2NE1 had disbanded in 2017, and rumored disputes between her Korean label and overseas management delayed her plans for a big American solo career, eventually leading to a pause on any projects she had in the pipeline. It was a massive blow, shutting down the numerous predictions of her being the ‘next big thing from South Korea’ and disappointing legions of fans. As time passed and her silence on the music front grew, the world attempted to theorize what went wrong and if there was a way to fix it. CL handled it all with grace, maintaining her silence and eventually walking away from her label in 2019.

That same year, she dropped the incredibly cathartic EP In The Name of Love, which outlined all her pain and the emotional toll silence can take on an artist. While it marked her return to music and celebrated a triumphant exit from her former label, it was also deeply connected to one of the most difficult chapters of her life. She needed to begin a new era, forge a new legacy to break free from the chaos of the past few years, and Alpha was the answer.

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CL conceptualized the foundation of Alpha in 2019 and announced a 2020 release, but later decided it was still too soon. With all the drama with record labels done with, it was time to do herself justice and evolve her debut album into a work of art that mirrored her reality. “I’ve actually been living with that concept and that title for so long. I always knew my first album should be named Alpha,” she says when we connect over Zoom for our conversation. She’s radiant as she smiles on my screen and sets the tone for what will be one of the most honest, in-depth interviews I’ve ever done. “It means the beginning of everything. The whole concept is choosing love over fear and facing it, too. It’s all the emotions that I went through and I wanted to share that with my fans, because I’ve always been about that. Especially from the In The Name of Love project where I got to talk more about myself, I feel like I always grew up with my fans, because I started so young and I want them to connect to me. So I wanted to make sure I did that.” 

CL on the November 2021 cover of Rolling Stone India. Photograph by gowontae

After a difficult journey dealing with the complexities that come with entertainment agencies and big music labels, CL felt the need to create something of her own, a space that allowed her to explore her artistry with no limits, disputes or contradictions. Her desire to be more involved in the creative process of music led her to launch Very Cherry in 2020, her own creative company and its in-house music label, Very Cherry Records. “Like I said, Alpha is about facing your fears, and I feel like being in the system for so long, I didn’t really get to meet all the people I work with, or understand the process of it. And there was always a question behind that, like, ‘How does this work?’ I feel that not knowing the truth, the process of it… I was always curious. So those are the sides that I learned more about through making Very Cherry.” 

The company features an impressive roster of creative minds from various parts of the music and fashion industries, geared to bring CL’s vision to life and work as a unit to celebrate art. “It was about recreating the team,” she explains about her arsenal of visual directors, producers, photographers, stylists and more. “I’m coming out of the system, so I’m just working with everyone. There are people that I have worked with before, but now it’s as a team working together for the first time– and there’s also a lot of people around the world that I work with. I have a lot of teams outside of Korea and Very Cherry. So, just putting all that together in such a short period of time while it’s our first run… I’ve learned a lot.” 

When I ask about her long-term vision for the label and why she felt it was the right time to launch it, she’s contemplative. “I made Very Cherry to protect my creativity,” she finally reveals. It’s a gleaming shield built of all the pain she went through and an absolute victory. “Like right now it’s Very Cherry Records also. Because even if I do in the future work with a label, or with different companies to create other things outside of music, I still want a home base and my people that I always create with. I want to be creative, I want to stay, and I want to protect that.”

The rise of the Alpha

Alpha is a reintroduction to the artist we all know as CL and an introduction to the woman behind her, Lee Chaelin. She’s the soul beyond the onstage persona that debuted in 2009, the emotional drive that pushed the face of CL to the top, but remained elusive to audiences as a result of CL striving to protect her personal life. While we got a glimpse of Chaelin on In The Name of Love, Alpha centers itself around CL and Chaelin working together. While previous collaborators like American producer Bauuer and Epik High’s Tablo have contributed on production and songwriting, there are no featured artists on the album; CL’s goal was to let audiences connect with her like never before. “I wanted to make sure it’s all the sounds that CL could express and that’s why all the songs in the album are sonically different, message-wise also. It’s a different perspective, you know?” she says. “I was excited to show that part because I felt for so long that it was a limited image or sound that I got to share.”

The security of Very Cherry fueled CL’s drive by giving her the complete artistic control she needed to unleash the wave of creativity that would birth Alpha. It’s an incredibly strong record, cruising through trap, hip-hop, pop, synth, and fusion, switching gears at every turn with confidence and determination. It’s the ultimate celebration of art, vulnerability, motivation, evolution and love; the CL born with 2NE1 blends with Chaelin to deliver an album that successfully highlights the strengths of a well-rounded, fearless artist. While hardcore anthems like “Spicy,” “Hwa” and “My Way” bring the magnetic CL to the stage, Chaelin takes over on the more sentimental “Xai,” “Let It,” “5 Star” and “Siren” — there are stories and sounds embedded that we’ve never heard from her before. “It’s because Alpha is also about CL and Chaelin finding balance,” she muses. “Because for so long, I wanted to keep my private life separate. ‘CL’ is a character I created for the stage and to express my music and when I perform. So it was hard to find that balance, because I wanted to separate it so much and protect each other in their category.” 

“If you feel like you’re not doing enough, or doing what you want to do… Sometimes there are situations that only time can heal, and that’s okay.” Photograph by gowontae for Rolling Stone India

Blending both identities happened naturally as CL took the time to understand each of the two sides of herself, their strengths, weaknesses and how they complement each other. She explains she’s always felt the existence of a cultural expectation that if you’re a badass, it’s because there’s a weaker side that always has to stay hidden–but before creating Alpha, she realized that one-dimensional outlook doesn’t reflect the reality of being human. “Because it’s not just about being strong, you know? That’s why with Alpha [I wanted to show] I have those emotions too. You could be a badass and still feel that way.”

My favorite tracks from Alpha are “Xai,” a dreamy, synth-drenched number, and the much-beloved pop/trap single “5 Star.” Both songs outline the ups and downs of love and all the emotions that come with it, and I tell CL they stood out to me because I never expected that sound from her. She’s pleased, smiling as she shares, “‘Xai’ and ‘5 Star’… I think [they’ve] always been personally what I like, a side that I never got to share. ‘Xai’ is actually a very special song because it has a lot of layers to it, a lot of meanings and it’s a subject I never talked about before. Actually ‘5 Star’ too.” 

The 2NE1 and CL we’ve seen since their debut in 2009 have been all about success and empowerment, often openly rejecting romance (and with it, men) in their quest to forge an identity of power and independence. Over time however, as CL and Chaelin blended together, things shifted. “I think all my love songs were like, ‘I don’t care’ or like, ‘boy, bye’ type of things– back from the 2NE1 era too–but I wanted to also share the positive feelings of when you’re in love. CL also has that side, she’s not always mad at the guy!” she laughs. “So yeah, I’m glad I did that.” The music video for “5 Star” is just as endearing as its message — starring singer-songwriter and visual director Christian Yu aka DPR IAN as CL’s romantic interest, it won fans’ hearts with its showcase of a softer, more vulnerable side of the self-declared ‘Baddest Female,’ a side that wants the guy, wants love, and celebrates it. It dropped last year and presented audiences with CL’s potential for versatility and a hint of what Alpha would eventually entail.

“Xai” dives deeper into the same subject, tackling the intensity of wanting to hold on to your partner, and links itself to “5 Star” with a lyrical reference to the latter’s title. There’s a moment of hesitation in her tone before she begins to explain the track to me, but then she decides to go for it. “‘Xai,’ you know, it’s a love song and especially coming from somebody that has my… not my job, but my love story, it’s different. Because I keep my private life very private. So that’s my love story.” She adds that it’s a track that can have several different interpretations and one connects to her fandom, the GZBz. Her tone is sentimental as she says, “It has a layer where sometimes that’s how I feel with my fans too, you know? There’s a line I say, ‘Everything that shines in the dark, you can’t own’ and [it’s about] the distance when I was creating this, when I wanted to talk to them [fans] and I couldn’t… It has that layer too. So that’s a very special song for me.” 

The discussion shifts from one song on Alpha to another, but when we get to “Let It,” I share that it resonated with me lyrically the most. It’s about having faith in yourself and what you do, walking your path with your head held high and brushing off all the trials and hate you face. It heroes growth, self-assurance and individuality, and in a video titled ‘Alpha Talk’ on her YouTube channel that takes a deep dive into the record, CL revealed it was originally written as a letter to herself. “It’s, like I said, there’s different emotions, me going through all the process of facing my fears and creating,” she tells me. “I’m a new version of myself and reprogramming myself.” On a livestream to celebrate the release of Alpha, CL played a version of “Let It” that featured two of her former 2NE1 members, Park Bom and Sandara Park. Hearing it is a blast of nostalgia, reawakening everything that 2NE1 had strived to establish. “I recorded that with the girls because I feel that’s what we all went through,” CL says. She adds, “Going from the same label and from the same system to now, some of them are their own CEOs and some of them are in a new company, and we’re starting our new chapter. I wanted the girls to hear that too, and I feel like we really can connect to that song very well.” Vocalist and dancer Minzy is the only member who missed out due scheduling conflicts, but CL plans to rectify that in the near future.”I would love to finish that, by the way, with the girls if I can,” she reveals with a grin. “I hope Minzy comes through and then we can finish that.” 

The strength that we see in “Let It” comes after years of struggle, but CL admits it was a powerful learning experience that made her more accepting of the good and the bad in life. “I felt like there’s sometimes things you really, really try, but it’s not really up to you. And there are things that only time can heal, and you just grow out of it. Because I am so passionate about a lot of things, I need to remind myself of that and tell myself to be patient. I wrote [“Let It”] while I was running every night and it’s a message to myself, what I had to remind myself, and hopefully that helps a lot of people to remind themselves to be true to themselves.” I confess that the song’s message was something I desperately needed to hear at this point in my life and CL is ever understanding. “That is exactly why I wanted to put that song out. Thank you for saying that. It’s okay to feel that way. If you feel like you’re not doing enough, or doing what you want to do… Sometimes there are situations that only time can heal, and that’s okay.”

Made in Korea

The trap-dominated pre-release single “Spicy,” which dropped in August to set the tone for Alpha, saw CL return to her roots. In addition to highlighting her success as a badass Korean woman, “Spicy” raises a glass to the global pop culture takeover that South Korea has reveled in the past couple of years. “First of all, I wanted to start with that song because we always need a GZB anthem. It’s an extension of ‘The Baddest Female’ (her 2013 solo debut single) and ‘Hello Bitches’ (2016) and the more I release those GZB anthems, at the end of the day I want to talk about where I come from, who I really am and what I represent.” She explains it’s all about the “spicy Asian girl with attitude” and the confidence in a song like “Spicy” comes from the determination to break barriers and stand out, do things that haven’t been done before. 

“I want every idol that comes out of an idol group to continue creating and I want to make everyone feel like they can also do what I did.” Photograph by gowontae for Rolling Stone India

CL witnessed the very beginning of K-pop’s American takeover back in 2016, when she had initially planned to kick off her global career. She was on the frontlines of the battle for representation, so there’s probably no one who can outline this evolution of K-pop and K-culture better. “When I first released ‘Lifted’ (2017) and had the first show [in the U.S.], there wasn’t even the word ‘K-pop’ to start with,” she recalls. “Back then it was not a separate thing, it was not a genre, it wasn’t a category, but now it is and people are so aware of it. Visually, sonically, and just artist-wise, it’s so loved and it’s such a strong fan base, so to see it grow has been amazing and I can’t wait for it to grow bigger.” 

As more K-pop artists enter the scene, rise to the top and eventually step away from the system, CL hopes that they can establish their own identities outside of what their companies create for them. She wants more Korean artists to give the world a glimpse of who they truly are. “I put this project out independently because I hope there are more layers to it outside of the K-pop industry and the K-pop system,” she explains. “I want every idol that comes out of an idol group to continue creating and I want to make everyone feel like they can also do what I did, outside of the industry.” 

She adds that there are hundreds of incredible Korean artists outside the glittering, highly-marketed world of K-pop that also deserve the same platforms that idols get. It’s one of the key reasons why she chose to work with DPR IAN and his independent creative collective Dream Perfect Regime on his 2020 single “No Blueberries.” She says, “The DPR crew, I’m always so supportive of them. Because there are very few independent crews where they do all the visuals and the music and all those things by themselves. That’s why I love collaborating with different types of artists here. They’re not promoted and they’re outside of the system, but I want to support them and I believe in their art.” 

Growing up GZB

Even during her own time as an idol in the K-pop system, CL knew what it was like to be the underdog, to be underestimated and struggle to rise. 2NE1 were ahead of their time, tackling concepts that their peers usually shied away from, but it was exactly the kind of message that won them their dedicated fanbase. “It’s important because that’s my truth and who I am. I try not to use that word [underdog] like I want to represent too much– I just am who I’ve always been.”

CL has been a part of my life since I first found 2NE1’s mega-hit single “I Am the Best” in 2012. I never related much to love songs back then, so their brand of rebellion against societal norms and unabashed celebration of the self reeled me in immediately. I spent the better part of a decade enthralled by CL in particular, since we’re about the same age, and in that time found friends with a similar story. As the years passed and we all took our places in the world, there was a certain comfort in 2NE1’s steady presence in the background. Even post their disbandment in 2017, they remained a part of fans’ lives; they represented a lot of women in the creative industry, women in the music industry, especially Asian women and other minorities who fought to be heard. It’s a community more than anything else, a movement built of ‘Bad Girls’ who don’t quite fit in, but are proud of it. When I tell CL this, she assures me that it’s a two-way street. “There’s like a meet and greet, like, FaceTime thing these days,” she says with a small smile. “And I got to talk to my fans from pre-debut, pre-album. They were like, ‘I was 14 back then and now I’m a mom’ or like, ‘I’m getting married.’ It made me very emotional. Those are the moments when I feel like we are growing up together.” She recalls a promise she made to her fandom, that they’d be together even 20 or 30 years from now, and she’s sure it will never be broken. “Because you can’t really change all the time we spent together.”

“I want to make sure that I look back at 12-year-old me or five years ago me and see that I’m evolving.” Photograph by gowontae for Rolling Stone India

It’s why she poured so much of her soul into Alpha. It’s about giving back to that incredible movement she sparked 12 years ago when she debuted at the age of 17, honoring the person she is now at 30, and the promise she made to stay with her fans. “For me, if I can make someone feel, that’s what I want to do,” CL explains. “It could be different types of feelings, like, you could hear ‘5 Star’ and you could be sad, you know? That’s not really up to me. But if I could make you feel, if you could connect to it… that inspires me. I want all my fans and people that listen to the songs to feel good about themselves. If I could choose an emotion that they can feel, I would love that and I would love to send that energy out. That it’s okay to be themselves, always.”

She asks about her fans in India and I tell her we’re a diverse bunch–different ages, different careers, backgrounds and stories, united by her message. She’s eager to visit, meet her GZBz here and learn more. “You know, I’ve never been [to India] so I cannot wait to be there and meet my fans,” she says. “I love everything about the culture and I can’t wait to learn more, I want to be there. And maybe you could tell me more when I’m there and guide me.”

The tail end of our conversation, much like Alpha itself, focuses on the future. Does she know what she wants to do next? “I actually do,” she says, cheerfully sidestepping my not-so-subtle prodding to share exact details. “I’m super excited to just keep going.” For CL, being onstage and staying creative is like therapy. She explains that the process of creating Alpha taught her more than she ever imagined. It’s how she learned so much about herself and laid down the building blocks of her new legacy, so there’s absolutely no stopping now. With the right team and a powerful fandom by her side, she knows the only way to go from here is up. “I want to make sure that I look back at 12-year-old me or five years ago me and see that I’m evolving. I’m not just being comfortable with every situation, I’m facing my fears and challenging myself. I want to make sure I keep doing that.”

Photographer: gowontae
Art Director: Tanvi Shah
Styling: Anna Park
Hair: Lee Hye Young
Makeup: Park Tae Yun

Stream CL’s debut LP ‘Alpha’:

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