CL, Korean Singer, Rapper and MARVIN Issue 4 Cover Star, Opens Up About Her Latest Album “Alpha” and Her Solo Journey
WORDS by ALEX FRANK
PHOTOGRAPHY by MARVIN SCOTT JARRETT
For CL, the trailblazing Korean rapper and singer, a sense of personal freedom has been a seemingly simple and yet incredibly elusive proposition. The artist born Chaelin signed to YG Entertainment, the mega South Korean music conglomerate that practically invented K-pop, when she was only fifteen. She then spent a few years grinding through the major label system, eventually landing a spot in 2009 in what would become 2NE1. The girl group was so overwhelmingly popular in their time that they’re considered the band responsible for introducing the world to Korean music. Acts like BTS and BLACKPINK— the biggest K-pop girl group since 2NE1, and every other contemporary K-pop act currently dominating charts world- wide exists partially due to their trailblazing.
She’s something of a global ambassador of Korean culture.
Lighting up fashion shows in Milan and magazine covers in America. Just this year she made an appearance on the touted Met Gala red carpet. All while working on becoming as impactful and powerful as the women—like Beyoncé—she grew up admiring.
CL is deeply connected to the increasing prominence of K-pop — the characteristic South Korean blend of R&B, rap and teen pop that now dominates the music industry. And yet, despite her eminence, CL’s story has also been a tale of false starts and feeling stuck. Even though YG Entertainment was the launchpad for her success in 2NE1, her team has had a tougher time making things happen for her as a stand- alone artist. Though CL took a break from 2NE1 to launch her solo career back in 2013, she’s been unable to release a proper full solo album until now, a delay that’s never been fully explained.
She recently left YG — which now manages BLACKPINK— to be an independent artist and is finally releasing her long-delayed debut album this year. It’s invigorating to hear CL share the small but significant victories that constitute liberation for her now, after all these years. Going on hikes, journeying by herself, seeing her relatives, just allowing herself to take a break from the hit parade. “I spent time with my family and traveled — not doing anything mentally for weeks and healing and reprogramming myself,” she says. “I didn’t know how to go on a vacation. Whenever I’m somewhere, I’m like, ‘what if I shoot a video here?’ My mind just goes to that. So I was like, ‘okay, let’s try not to think about that and just enjoy this moment.’”
And so, her new album ALPHA is an ode to enjoying said moments both conceptually and spiritually. She says she was able to make the music she wanted to make, free from the ways she had always done things at YG. “Unlearning came first. Coming out of the system, there’s a way of thinking and there’s a formula to how this is going to work. But there are so many ways to be creative. I was exploring that.” At the time of our Zoom interview, details of the album were still being kept under lock and key.
Though she let us in on a few thoughts about the record’s early single “Spicy”. It’s a relentless little banger that features a poetic interlude by, of all people, the actor John Malkovich. She explains the song is meant as anthem of free expression. “We all have our own battles. I’m coming from the battles that I went through,” she says. “It’s just about what we go through when we want to be ourselves.”
Even with all this talk of personal expression, it’s hard not to notice that there remains a certain kind of carefulness in how she presents herself. I interviewed her on the phone six years ago when she was still firmly embedded at YG and there was a clear hesitance in her voice then. She tells me now that though she doesn’t remember the interview, there was likely a label employee there, making sure she didn’t say anything off-message. So many years later I’m surprised to hear her fall back on some of the guardedness hammered into her by the K-pop system. When I ask her, for instance, what statement she wants to make about her life or worldview with “Spicy,” she offers me a platitude: “We have to keep it spicy.” After continued probing, I don’t get much more elaboration.
Turns out, starting fresh isn’t just about reinventing oneself as an artist, it’s about learning to be a person. Away from a support structure, on your own, doing for your- self for the very first time. “I had no control. I’d never traveled outside of work. I never knew how to get on a plane by myself or go grocery shopping without anyone,” she says. “So many simple things.” And as I learn over our one hour conversation, she’s finding that freedom doesn’t always come smoothly. It’s as if she’s living the pop version of a college student newly launched from the nest. As she contemplates the road ahead she admits: “It’s not easy, there are a lot more challenges than I thought.”
Still CL has a remarkable way of turning even the tough stuff into something positive. Every difficulty turns out to be a much-needed lesson that leads to personal and professional growth. “I had to learn the whole system; what everybody does and how all of this is really fully made,” she says of her departure from the major label system. Furthermore, she sees herself as blazing a path so other Korean artists can brave the choice of autonomy. “It is a statement for me to be an independent artist. In the K-pop system there’s not a lot of us who go independent from girl groups and boy bands. Hopefully I inspire all the artists that come from that,” she says. “Give them hope.”
CL was born in Korea but spent some of her early years in France and Japan, where her father was a university professor. She was educated at international schools in Tsukuba and Paris, giving her a fluency in English as well as a sense of the big world outside of herself. Today, she’s relatively fuzzy about what life was like before music became her focus. Offering only that as a kid she loved to spend time in nature. But she perks up when she recalls her early training as a dancer. It grounded her during a somewhat topsy-turvy childhood. “I was raised in different countries and moved a lot,” she says.“I felt peace through dancing.”
Dance led to connections in the entertainment industry and a sense of possibility. One day, she saw a performance featuring a number of artists from YG and thought, that could be me. She sent in an audition tape but never heard back. But so driven even at a young age, she made her way to the YG offices in Seoul to track down and personally deliver the audition tape to executives. “That shows what a very weird 12-year-old I was,” she remembers. “But they called me right away that night and that was the beginning of everything.”
She bounced around the major label system for a while undergoing the rigorous media and performance training expected of all young K-pop artists. CL is still reticent to discuss the difficulties of the early days but it’s clear that even when trapped within the K-pop music matrix, she maintained a sense of steeliness. And she stood up for herself.
When asked to get double eyelid surgery, a procedure that transforms an Asian eye shape into a more Caucasian one, she was brave enough to put her foot down. “I don’t think anyone should be making that decision for you,” she says resolutely. “And I made the choice not to [undergo the procedure.]”
Eventually she joined 2NE1 alongside members Bom, Dara, and Minzy and soon after, another example of CL’s fortitude changed the course of K-pop history. As a younger artist, she’d heard a faint skeleton of a song. A demo that was then titled, “Satisfy Me” and it caught her ear but because she hadn’t made it big yet, she wasn’t given permission to record it for herself. She couldn’t get the song out of her head though and tracked it carefully through the byzantine YG studio system. She kept her eye on it for five years in the hopes she could make it hers. Another artist tried to record it but she found a way to snatch it back. “I was so bummed when they tried to take it away from me,” she remembers. “So I started fighting.”
Finally, 2NE1 achieved enough success that CL took her chance. “It had the hook but not the verses, but I was like, ‘we should use that song,’” she remembers. The song was restructured to have verses for each one of 2NE1’s members. And they gave it a new name: “I Am The Best.” The grinding electronic rap song would go on to become an icon of the K-pop sound, winding its way swiftly around the globe (as this issue goes to print, it has over 300,000,000 views on YouTube). The song powerfully convinced the world to start paying attention to K-pop. The track topped Billboard’s World Digital Songs chart in 2014 and was the only other Korean song to do besides PSY’s surprise hit “Gangnam Style.”
2NE1 also made an over-the-top, of-the-times, Gaga-esque music video for the song that found the girls, at various moments, stroking a pet cat, shooting machine guns, walking a white poodle down a runway, and smashing up their own platinum record plaques with silver baseball bats. Each member of the band had an identity (think Spice Girls) and CL was portrayed as the wild one. Probably why we see her one scene in a straitjacket. Maybe a visual metaphor for how she felt confined by the group, ready to break free. CL says she got inspiration for her rowdy character from the empowered American pop stars she’s always loved. “Missy Elliott, Lil’ Kim, P!nk, Gwen Stefani — these were all very powerful solo artists,” she says. “I grew up being like, ‘why isn’t there someone who looks like me, an Asian act, that is an MTV pop star?’”
“I Am The Best” forged a formula for technicolor, hip-hop-influenced K-pop that continues to influence the genre today. K-pop stars today are there because 2NE1 gave them a stylistic road map. “I believe that 2NE1 and what we created around that is definitely responsible for what K-pop is now, sonically and visually,” she explains. Harvard sociocultural linguist Joyhanna Yoo Garza writes about Korean culture. She opines that 2NE1 was integral in making K-pop an international phenomenon. “2NE1 was very clearly the precursor to a lot of groups we see today — the whole image that they had was powerful, in your face, a female empowerment that was very legible to a global audience,” Garza writes.
Despite this massive influence, CL herself isn’t able to articulate why “I Am The Best” resonated the way it did, except to say that listening to her creative impulses paid off. “We were just doing what we like,” she says. “That’s the magic.” Nonetheless, CL was at the height of her powers and pushing for even more. She was eager to start writing her own songs for 2NE1, rare for K-pop artists who typically receive songs that are carefully crafted by management. When she asked her label for permission to try her own songwriting they predictably said no.
“Of course they did,” she says with an audible smirk. But, like she always had, she found a way. “I asked a producer, ‘do you have leftover beats that I could just play around with?’ And I started writing.” The first two songs she wrote were “Crush” and “If I Were You”, both of which made it to the subsequent 2NE1 album, CRUSH. Again, her artistic instincts proved to be razor sharp. “That album,” she beams with pride, “was the biggest album for 2NE1.”
With this kind of momentum, you’d think her trajectory towards a solo career was imminent, one that she dreamed could break through to the American market. CL longed to be the first solo female artist from Asia as big as the Rihannas and Katy Perrys of the world. Things certainly started off on the right foot. She released a song in 2013 titled, “The Baddest Female,” that was a minor hit and established some- thing of a blueprint for what the CL brand could be: a swag bad girl in flashy clothes who raps more than she sings. Something like a K-pop Azealia Banks, who switched between Korean and English with ease. But for some reason, there were fits and starts. She teamed up with certified hitmaker Diplo for 2015s “Doctor Pepper,” (Diplo x RiFF RAFF x OG Maco) but the track didn’t make much of an impact. Another pair of songs “Lifted” and “Hello Bitches” were solid — if a little basic — takes on American hip-hop but rang slightly hollow.
All the while she appeared to be mired in label politics. It’s a tension that she’s never fully discussed with the press, even now. A debut album was promised over and over but never materialized. Songs and music videos were teased but never fully released. And as she was stuck in neutral, K-pop itself was becoming bigger than ever with acts like BTS and BLACKPINK (YG’s new focus after the final disbanding of 2NE1 in 2016). These bands conquered the American market in a way that seemed almost effortless in comparison, partially thanks to the doors CL herself opened. When I ask her what it’s been like to watch the overwhelming rise of others while she’s seems trapped in major label muck, she’s diplomatic but clearly eager to get in on the action. “It’s a celebration for me,” she says. “And I want to make sure there’s more. That’s all I can say.”
There’s a lot riding on ALPHA. And while first single “Spicy” is a nod to the harder bad girl persona she’s long projected, there are two other recent moments that point to a different, more approachable side of CL. It’s a vulnerable side, easier to relate to and more honest after years being guarded with the press and in music. “Lover Like Me,” a melancholy little electronic R&B song that dispenses with CL’s typical sharp edges, feels straight from the heart. In it she plays the role of the scorned party in a relationship. The one with an open wound from a bad breakup. Sung in English, she introduces herself with her real name, Chaelin, as opposed to her stage name CL. She wants her audience to meet the woman beneath the pop culture character.
“Wish You Were Here,” which came out in February is a mournful tribute to her mother who died of a heart attack only weeks prior to the song’s release. “She was a unicorn to me,” CL says. “Still is.” The beat on “Wish You Were Here” is slow and impressionistic. CL is singing more than rapping, contemplating what life is like in heaven and mulling over the difficulty she’s having coming to terms with her loss. Pop stars talk a lot about making music that’s “personal” to them but CL is actually doing it, writing lyrics from raw anguish. “I was going through pictures and just wanted to do something for her. I wanted to share the pain,” she says. “That’s what I want to perform onstage. My story. This is what I’ve been going through.”
It’s anyone’s guess whether ALPHA will fully deliver on CL’s creative and commercial promise, but it’s significant that she’s trying to express some of that fresh, hard-fought freedom in her current work. Years of being hemmed in by the “tough girl” image for a major label, she’s now freely created work that is more open and seeking connection.
It’s certainly a different world than the one CL started in with 2NE1. American pop charts are now dominated by introspective young women like Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo, who are unafraid to put their fears and foibles into their music. “In her training as a K-pop star, I don’t think being authentic, being vulnerable, was something that was stressed. But authenticity is important to an American audience,” says Garza. “How does she break out of that persona she’s always been?”
Whatever the near future holds, there’s a tenacity about CL that’s both admirable and encouraging, whether fighting for song choices as a teenager or keeping at the arduous task of launching a successful solo career. “For me, whatever’s happened, as long as I can use what I’ve learned for a positive change, that’s why I continue,” she says. “Being successful to me always has been being fearless. Whenever I’m scared, I want to challenge myself.” She’s a pop star doing the hard work of building her own bright future, striving one song at a time to achieve everything she can. “When I’m in a situation where I feel like I’m controlled or not being able to be creative, I choose to get out of it,” she says. “For me, it’s like: ‘Okay, what’s next?’”