To kick off season two of the popular TV show Dave, a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek series that explores the life of David Burd, aka white rapper Lil Dicky, his crew heads to Korea to make a song with one of the country’s biggest stars — CL. After meeting the pop star during an award show appearance, Dave and his crew are a bit starstruck: “She looks like a Korean Beyonce,” exclaims GaTa, one of his closest collaborators. And although the overall tone of the series tends toward silly, GaTa’s estimation of CL is right on.
When it comes to K-pop, CL is one of the genre’s original icons, stepping into the spotlight at age 17 as the frontwoman for the girl-group 2NE1, and leading the collective to become one of the best selling girl-groups in the world with 66.5 million records sold. 2NE1 was part of the “second generation of K-pop stars,” following up the trailblazers in the ’90s, as today’s artists represent a new, third wave. As she gears up to release her official solo debut album, Alpha, this week, her longevity makes CL something of a bridge between the two eras.
2NE1 was a global force from 2009–2014, but after a two year hiatus, they officially broke up in 2016. During that time, CL began to establish her solo career, releasing the iconic debut “Hello Bitches” in 2015, and following it up in 2016 with the Wu Tang-sampling, reggae-tinged “Lifted” (complete with a cameo from Method Man himself in the Dave Meyers-directed video). Shortly after that, 2NE1 officially disbanded, but CL’s momentum was only building; “Lifted” made her the first solo female Korean artist to ever chart on the Billboard Hot 100, and only the third Korean artist ever to make an American chart appearance.
Obviously, in 2021, things are quite different with BTS racking up a No. 1 placement every time they drop a single. But CL was paving the way for the success of BTS, and back in 2016, seemed destined for the kind of commercial success the boy band and their army have accomplished. Instead, a long delay after her solo breakout had fans angrily tweeting #JusticeForCL at one point, angered over perceived label fumbling of the genre’s biggest female star. Things seemed to come to a head in 2019, three years after her momentum from “Lifted” had abated. CL unexpectedly announced she was leaving her long-time label, YG, and almost immediately released a left-field EP called In The Name Of Love as an independent artist.
Since K-pop artists are usually backed by rich, all-powerful label machines that help their music pop, this decision was a signal to everyone that CL was going to do things her way. The culmination of those efforts is Alpha, and though it was originally slated for release in the fall of 2020, the album was quickly pushed back to allow further fine-tuning, and likely to recalibrate live shows in light of pandemic-related delays. A few early tracks were released toward the end of 2020, the fashion-heavy, rap-sung “Post Up” that completely bricked, an insanely catchy haters rebuff, “HWA,” and the loved-up “5-Star.” Luckily, that first single doesn’t make the final cut for inclusion on Alpha , a wise choice.
Even as momentum was shifting back in the right direction for her debut album, CL was dealt another tough hand. At the top of the year she lost her mother to a heart attack, just before her own 30th birthday, and chose to mark the loss with a reflective, sad homage, “Wish You Were Here” released in February 2021. Taking a few months off after the song came out, instead, CL seemed to hit her stride this summer with the release of “Spicy,” a fiercely rapped Minaj-era banger that swaps speedy Korean verses for an English chorus: “She got the sauce and it’s spicy / You looking at the most fly Asians.” With frenetic EDM production and even an approximation of a drop, the song hit more of a mark than her late 2020 singles did.
Sharing a similar track in September, “Lover Like Me,” the swaggering tone for Alpha had officially been set — loud, brash, bold, and electric. “2020 was the beginning of my rebirth and rewriting my own story,” CL told Billboard earlier this year. “I can freely share different sides of me.” The album backs up this assertion with an eclectic mix of different styles and moods, even if it does tend more toward the bombastic style that defines those two 2021 singles. The range is there, though — album cut “Chuck” goes bouncier and more throwback, while another standout, “Paradise,” is an eerie trap song full of psychedelic flexes and slurred vocal effects reminiscent of Travis Scott. It might be the most modern rap track CL has ever done, and she sounds right at home in the post-Astroworld sound.
Alpha isn’t strictly big rap hooks, either; “5 Star” is joined by another slower track, “Xai,” an exploration of tropical house that shares DNA with the best of Major Lazer production. The piano-driven “Let It” is nostalgic of early 2000s pop, like if Vanessa Carlton learned how to jam a rap interlude into one of her catchiest tunes, and “Tie A Cherry” reminds me of the Selena Gomez and Gucci Mane collaboration, “Fetish” in the best way. Of course, unlike Selena, CL doesn’t need a rapper to guest — she handles both sections by herself. Despite the many high points, at times, the record drags. CL might be part of the bedrock for modern K-pop success, but her sound can feel stuck in the past. “My Way” hovers around the same BPM and siren-flecked sound as “Spicy,” but without any of the playfulness, and “Siren” is tepid R&B that could’ve been done by any number of mid-level artists playing in the shallow end of that genre’s pool.
Interestingly enough, one of the strongest songs from her new era is when she went lo-fi and vulnerable in remembrance of her mom. “Wish You Were Here” didn’t make the album, but it belongs alongside these tracks anyway, offering a welcome balance. Without the unrelenting insistence on domination, CL’s strengths were on full display — her absolutely beautiful singing voice, unexpected details like a shared family love for Stevie Wonder, and a canny ability to find new angles on done-to-death subjects like grief and love. The follow-ups to Alpha should focus on honing in on CL’s voice as an artist now, instead of endlessly emphasizing her well-established stature. Sometimes the best thing a successful artist can do is get quieter. Even alphas have a sensitive side.
Alpha is out now via Very Cherry. Get it here.