The colors CL wore were as loud as her message. Sporting knee-high boots and a Froot Loop-hued puffy jacket, she led a squad of dancers through Seoul’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art with the authority of a drill sergeant. In a remote performance that felt more like a music video than a livestream when it aired in October, the former member of pioneering South Korean girl group 2NE1 was making her return to the spotlight on The Late Late Show With James Corden, where in 2016 she became the first K-pop artist to appear on its stage. “I’m baaaack!” she sneered into her mic before launching into her comeback single, a gritty hip-hop banger called “+HWA+.” “Don’t let your eyes wander away,” she later rapped in Korean before switching back to English: “You can’t kill me.”
Those words of survival were more than bluster. In the early 2010s, it seemed practically preordained that CL would be the first K-pop artist to become a true global superstar. As the multilingual breakout member of 2NE1 (she grew up in South Korea, Japan and France), her promise rested in part in her ability to bridge cultures; she was as at ease appearing on Korea’s lighthearted variety shows as she was collaborating with the likes of Skrillex and Diplo. Yet, on the brink of her solo breakthrough, her musical output slowed as her Korean and American teams seemed to fall out of sync, sparking a fan-led online campaign seeking #JusticeForCL.
Now, she’ll finally release her debut studio album, +ALPHA+, in the first half of 2021. Once the pacesetter for K-pop’s Western migration, CL, whose new music freely mixes Korean and English, is returning to a U.S. music scene that has changed immensely. Cultural and language barriers are no longer the obstacles they once were, and the idea of “crossing over” is practically outdated. Today, K-pop artists like Blackpink and BTS are as embedded in the American mainstream as Samsung, and Latin artists like Bad Bunny and J Balvin need no translation to gain traction in the United States. The biggest global acts win fans and top the charts without compromising their visions.
CL, 29, is backed by management from Scooter Braun’s SB Projects and distributed by Kakao M, a conglomerate that owns four of Korea’s biggest music labels as well as the country’s top messaging app (KakaoTalk) and most popular music streaming service (MelOn). Yet for the first time in her career, she is an independent artist and will release +ALPHA+ through her own company, Very Cherry, which is also the name of the Haus of Gaga-esque creative team that helped assemble her Corden spectacle. Without the practically bottomless resources K-pop labels are known for, CL knows the indie path will look different from other chapters of her career. “I know exactly where I’m going, what I want to do,” she says on a late-December Zoom call from her apartment in Seoul, where her gold jewelry gleams in the midday sun. “Of course it’s not going to be the same. But this is where I want to start.”
That scrappy spirit pervades her new music. +ALPHA+ embraces her status as an outlier of the international pop scene, with hooky pop-R&B hybrids, avant-garde electronic touches and distorted, speaker-busting hip-hop that stand apart from the glossy acts for which she helped paved the way. “2020 was the beginning of my rebirth and rewriting my own story,” says CL. “I can freely share different sides of me.”
That freedom is, given the state of the world, figurative for the moment. “Of course it starts at the craziest time,” she says, laughing. She jokes that she is on day “I don’t even know” of self-quarantine in Seoul, preparing for a solitary Christmas away from her family. She wistfully sighs as she mentions her grandma’s homemade kimchi, but she is learning to treasure the solitude, too. “I never get time alone,” she says. She is upbeat yet guarded, turning the conversation away from trickier topics with the kind of media training K-pop stars are famous for. At no point in our 80-minute conversation does she remove her mirrored sunglasses.
CL never quite fit in. She moved around so much growing up that she has said she often felt like an alien in her youth. Born Lee Chaerin in Seoul, she spent most of her childhood in the Japanese cities of Tsukuba and Tokyo, where she loved to dance and styled herself in Roc-A-Wear and BabyPhat like her idols Lil’ Kim and Missy Elliott. “Dance is not a 5-6-7-8 [routine] to me,” she says. “That’s when I’m not thinking about anything. It’s just how I meditate.”
At just 13, she moved by herself to Paris for two years, living with a local family while studying at an international school, then returned to Korea, where she successfully auditioned for YG Entertainment. The company — which, like many K-pop firms, acts as management, label and agent for its stars — had just struck gold with its hip-hop boy band Big Bang and wanted to assemble a female version.
CL and her 2NE1 bandmates Minzy, Dara and Bom were in many ways the outliers of K-pop. Girl groups of the era usually leaned toward vixenish or girl-next-door images, but with its punky, tomboyish style and empowering messages, 2NE1 seemed more likely to hang with skaters outside the mall than peruse its boutiques. The group’s over-the-top videos and relatively small head count — compared with the nine-member Girls’ Generation or 13-member Super Junior — magnified its individual characters into pop superheroes. “We all had very different personalities and all brought different energy to the table,” says CL. “They’re like my sisters. We’re stuck for life — in the best way!”
Years before K-pop companies were regularly striking partnerships with American labels or opening U.S. divisions, 2NE1 crossed borders. In 2012, the act became the first K-pop girl group to go on a world tour, which included arena dates in Newark, N.J., and Los Angeles. Its 2014 album, Crush, was the then-highest-charting K-pop album on the Billboard 200, reaching No. 61 at a time when major-label interest in Korean music was still nascent. “I believe I did something to the culture,” CL says with ease. “It’s up to people how they digest it, but I definitely believe I played a part in building K-pop.”
CL’s seemingly unshakable self-confidence was, in fact, a big part of the group’s appeal; as she put it on 2NE1’s brilliantly nutty 2011 single, “I Am the Best.” She openly admitted that, while still in her teens, her former label boss asked her to get double eyelid surgery (a popular procedure in East Asia that gives eyes a more “Western” shape). “I chose to fight against it,” she says today. “I’m proud of myself for doing that.” Other expectations seemed plain silly to her. “The tiniest thing would make people uncomfortable,” says CL. “You know, it was like, ‘Oh, they’re wearing sneakers onstage?’ ” But she channeled her contrarian impulses into creativity, writing on much of the music she performed with her group — a still-unusual move for K-pop artists. CL is the sole credited lyricist on four songs from Crush, 2NE1’s final album, including the G funk-influenced highlight “Baby I Miss You.”
“She expanded the image of the female K-pop idol,” says Hae Joo Kim, a K-pop expert and the assistant chair of professional music at Berklee College. “Her brand of unapologetic cool was refreshing and contributed in paving a way for other K-pop artists to follow — Blackpink has ostensibly inherited, and further developed, their image of haughty cool.”
After 2NE1 went on hiatus in 2014 (it formally disbanded in 2017), CL signed a deal with SB Projects for co-management alongside YG. Setting her sights on the United States was an obvious decision to her peers. “I always thought CL was the best rapper, performer and one of the best singers in Korea,” says collaborator and former labelmate Tablo, of Korean hip-hop trio Epik High. “It’s natural for CL to be doing music in the States because of her upbringing. Her audience is international, because her home is international.”
She moved to L.A. and recorded with artists at the vanguard of pop, like Grimes and producer BloodPop. And thanks to Braun, she hung out with those at its center, like Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber. In her 2NE1 days, CL says now, “we basically had a formula” when it came to writing hits. In the past few years, she learned how to collaborate with artists from all backgrounds. It “unlocked” a lot for her creatively, she says.
Yet as CL laid down tracks, her Eastern and Western teams appeared to differ on what was best for their artist. “When you’re working with two groups of people, it’s not really up to me to schedule or pick the songs,” she says. “It was hard to meet in the middle.” She released only a handful of singles between 2015 and 2016: “Doctor Pepper,” a raucous turn-up anthem with Diplo and rappers Riff Raff and OG Maco; “Hello Bitches,” a maximalist reunion with 2NE1 producer Teddy Park; and “Lifted,” a softer hip-pop track sampling Wu-Tang Clan that barely cracked the Billboard Hot 100. They all hinted at the myriad career paths available to a singer whose chameleonic skill set had no clear precedent.
Yet if CL suffered for not fitting neatly into a box, she’s uninterested in unpacking what went wrong. Prior to our conversation, CL requests, through her publicist, that her former Korean label not be mentioned by name. Did it hold her back? “Not really,” says CL. “I don’t think anyone was trying to hold me back. I think it was the opposite. Everyone was excited. But no one knew what to do.” (YG did not comment for this story.) When asked who or what held up the music, she grows a little frustrated. “There’s not one person,” she says. “It’s not one thing. It’s nobody’s ‘fault,’ it’s just whatever happens, happens. And I learned the best way is to just really learn from it.” Did the situation feel claustrophobic? “Yes,” she says. “That I can say.”
She reclaimed power where she could: on social media, where she leaked an unreleased music video and made her frustrations known in other ways. She left the SB Projects roster in October 2018, and the following month she and Braun pooh-poohed rumors of tension with a jokey Twitter exchange in which CL called Braun her “#broforlife.” Yet the following year, she liked a series of Instagram comments from fans who suggested he had treated her unfairly. One directed at him read: “Take care of your artist and stop shunting her to the side.”
If there were any issues, neither party speaks of them today. CL parted ways with YG in November 2019, a decision that she confirms was her own, then rejoined SB Projects in early 2020 as an independent artist. “Her fans had been waiting so patiently for her solo comeback that I knew she had a lot to say and a lot to prove, not only for herself but for [her fans] across the world,” says Jen McDaniels, general manager at SB Projects. “It was a no-brainer that we had to help fulfill that vision for her and pick up where we left off.” (The company declined to comment about YG.)
CL is nonchalant about the whole thing. “With Scooter I will always be grateful, because he’s the one who invited me out to L.A.,” she says. “I’m working with the whole team again now, and it has been great.”
In late 2019, CL made her independent debut with the In the Name of Love EP, a confident hopscotch through synth-pop, EDM and R&B. It didn’t include the big-name collaborations she recorded a few years prior; she is vague about what happened to those songs and talks about them as if they are lost to the great external hard drive in the sky. “Hopefully the people I did work with, we could reconnect and make something better,” she says calmly. “If it’s out of my control, I can’t do anything about it. What I can do is make a better song. That’s under my control.”
She then cues up a couple of unreleased songs from +ALPHA+ on her phone. The first is classic CL, with a punishing beat, expletive-laden rap verses and a bratty playground-chant hook. It’s the next song that she seems anxious about. She lets out a little nervous laugh as she hits play on a hypnotic, left-field track with airy vocals and skittering synths. “It’s a little different from the CL sound,” she says apprehensively. But it’s a stunner, touching on the breezy vibes of contemporary pop and R&B with an artiness that I suggest edges her music closer to the work of, say, FKA twigs. “Yes!” she says, delighted at the comparison.
Already, “+HWA+” has hit No. 3 on Billboard’s World Digital Song Sales chart and has inspired a makeover trend on TikTok whose videos have garnered over 7 million views. But the adventurous material CL plays me is an indication that, even if she doesn’t storm the charts, she could at the very least find a home on the fringes of mainstream pop alongside cult-favorite rule-breakers like Charli XCX and Lorde (both vocal fans of CL). “We could do a lot of different things without having to worry about catering to a certain genre,” says +ALPHA+ producer Dave Hamelin, whom CL met a few years ago but hit up in 2020 after hearing his work with alt-R&B star 070 Shake. “That’s what attracted me to working with her: It’s pretty limitless.”
Lyrically, CL says her new music will “100%” draw from the ups and downs of the past few years, too, with slower songs written from the heart. “That’s what’s exciting about being independent,” she adds. “I really get to write from my perspective. My album is like me writing a book.” For the music to transcend beyond her current fan base, she’ll have to go there with the same realness and vulnerability that define many of today’s biggest pop stars. But the candor she brought to songs like In the Name of Love’s “+DONE161201+” — a moving track about finally breathing after years of anguish — and a 2020 Instagram post in support of Black Lives Matter, in which she acknowledged Black artists’ inextricable influence on K-pop, suggest CL is ready.
For the first time in her career, it seems like there’s nothing getting in the way of her expressing herself. The members of her Very Cherry creative team are based around the world, giving her a hawk’s-eye view of the latest in music, fashion, film and technology across continents. Its name nods to the freedom that inspired CL to create in the first place. “ ‘Cherry’ has always been my nickname because of my Korean name,” says CL, pointing at her Zoom screen name, which reads “CHERRY” alongside an emoji of the fruit. “And my dad sent me this book that I wrote when I was younger, and on it I had written ‘Cherry Publishing.’ ” She smiles shyly. “That inspired me. I was like, ‘OK, go back to who I am.’ ”