CL Is Already The Future Of Music — ALPHA Is Just The Cherry On Top
After the K-pop veteran went solo and there was no album in sight, some worried her moment to take over the world had passed. But ALPHA shows she’s been on that destined path all along.
When CL arrives at the shore after her musical re-birth, she wears cherry-red boxing gloves. Her shore, a cascading teal blue curtain; her shell, a black, high collar dress. The 30-year-old’s gaze is up, unblinking. She stands triumphant with her feet firmly planted on the ground, bumping her fists to the beat. “Been around long enough to know what I like,” she sings in the brazen “Tie a Cherry.” “I only trust myself — just me, myself, and I.”
Lee Chae-lin — CL with her gloves off, you could say — says that fighters were a big inspiration for ALPHA, the South Korean singer’s first solo album released in October. “In boxing, like in life, sometimes, you've got to take a step back. Sometimes, you attack. But you need to strike that balance of movement,” she tells Refinery29 over a video call, her icy blonde locks swishing back and forth as she mimics the dance of a spar. “I had to put myself in ‘Alpha Mode’ in making the album, and had to be fearless to continue to do that.” The kind of fear Lee is working against is one you harbor when, as a veteran musician, you put out your first solo full-length 12 years into your career. That fear only grows as anticipation mounts from fans who have been desperately waiting to finally hear what you have to say.
To those who don’t know CL, ALPHA would seem like a good place to start. But the rest of us, who have been following her ascent since her days as the leader of juggernaut 2NE1, know that this isn’t the beginning of Lee’s story — it’s just the next chapter. Ask any K-pop idol, from members of rookie group Kep1er and fan-favorite LOONA to, well, BLACKPINK, who their role model is, and you’re likely to hear CL’s name. “I want to learn from CL sunbae-nim,” said BLACKPINK’s Lisa in a 2017 interview with Naver, using the respectful Korean-language honorific to address the singer. You can hear the fierce swagger and bravado of CL and 2NE1 rippling through songs like BLACKPINK’s “How You Like That,” CLC’s “Like It,” EVERGLOW’s “First,” and countless other singles as the years have gone on. And it isn’t just about the music — the singer has also long been regarded as a fashion muse for artists and designers. Her avant-garde style helped her make history this year when CL became one of the first Koreans to walk the red carpet of the Met Gala, along with BLACKPINK’s Rosé.
Despite her success, Lee’s story doesn’t follow a traditional arc. Just as she reached the moment many believed would change everything for not just CL, but the increasingly global music culture as a whole, she fell silent. When an EP and full-length solo album were repeatedly delayed for years without explanation, CL’s brilliantly defiant music seemed fated to become a bygone classic. All the speculation around that period assumes that something “went wrong” — that without the validation of the West, CL wasn’t able to fulfill the destined path that the industry expected from her to reach her full potential. After all, the expectation to be the K-pop artist to crack the U.S. market and be a blueprint for future acts would be a daunting task for anyone, even a Queen of K-pop.
Lee grew up with a love of dancing. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, but spent a handful of years living abroad in Japan and France. “Dance was the only thing that didn't really change, and that was how I would express myself,” she says. The Lees were a creative household: the pop star smiles widely as she recalls spending Sundays painting with her family. Despite being a physics professor, her father drew up children’s books for her and her sister so they could continue to learn Korean while they lived in Japan. So, when Lee eventually moved back to Korea, and some of the kids in her dance class were auditioning for entertainment companies around the city, she decided to try out.
“It was just a natural thing. It wasn't like, ‘I'm going to do this, I'm going to be a pop star,’” Lee says. “But I grew up on MTV, listening to a lot of powerful female artists, and there were no Asian acts in the [Western mainstream] pop scene. So that's when, more and more, I wanted to be that for the 12-year-old me. I wanted to be an example for whoever wants to be a pop star.”
It happened — and in a big way. In 2009, when she was 17 years old, Lee, dubbed CL and armed with a new spitfire flow, along with Park Bom, Dara, and Minzy, debuted as 2NE1, a group that would go on to become one of the most successful and influential in the industry. If K-pop were a high school cafeteria, 2NE1 would be the God, I wish I were that cool-girls you’d see sitting at their own table in the back, somewhere in between aegyo and overtly sexualized aesthetics, and definitely not caring about what anyone else thinks. And CL was their charismatic leader, often writing lyrics and co-composing tracks for the group. She would later emulate the group’s confident unnie (which means “older sister”) ethos in her first solo single, “The Baddest Female,” in 2013. “Not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good, you know,” she specifies on the track.
In 2014, when it was announced CL would debut as a solo artist in the U.S. under Scooter Braun’s management — the same figure behind the careers of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande — the singer’s path to world domination seemed inevitable. For decades, South Korea had been seeking an artist who could lead the charge of K-pop’s American takeover. Many had tried, from BoA and Wonder Girls to Girls’ Generation and Rain. But CL had every ingredient for a successful crossover: She was a magnetic, multilingual triple threat, for whom cultural differences didn’t matter and commanding attention was second nature.
This is the part of CL’s story, though, where things stopped going as planned. The singer collaborated on a handful of tracks and released a small smattering of singles, including the braggadocious “Hello Bitches” and blissed-out “Lifted,” which were all supposed to appear on a forthcoming debut solo EP. “Lifted,” coming in at 94 on the Billboard Hot 100, made her the first South Korean woman to make it on the chart. She showed what she had to offer on a multi-city North American tour. But over those few years, it felt like CL was living two conflicting realities: one in which TIME called her the “Future of K-pop in America,” and yet she didn’t (or couldn’t) release a full album. 2NE1 eventually disbanded in 2016, but CL still hadn’t released enough solo music for fans to hold on to. It wasn’t clear then why the EP didn’t come out as promised, and we still don’t know why. It’s clear that’s a story she’s not telling.
But, what is telling is that pretty much immediately after she left her long-time label in 2019, the real CL finally entered the ring. She says she considers her In the Name of Love EP to be the beginning of when she had the freedom to “really tell [her] story.” Then, in 2020, she created her own indie label, Very Cherry. “In the K-pop system, I felt like I didn't know parts of my body and was just the face, so I decided to finally learn everything so I have full control over my movements.” She released ALPHA a year later. Though many people had been holding their breath for years for new music, Lee, now under TaP Music management, did her best to ignore the mounting outside pressure. “It is tough, definitely,” she admits, “but that's when I make sure I make things happen, focus on what I can do, the creative, because that's what's going to talk.”
In a fluid mix of English and Korean, ALPHA speaks volumes — sometimes with wistfulness, with lust, with bitterness, but above all, with confidence. Lee’s is not the tampon commercial-esque commodified feminism that pop stars have been peddling for the last decade. It can be easy to cock an eyebrow at celebrities who offer expected variations of I do my own thing, or I’m just being me. But that’s the dazzling power of CL: You can truly feel the sincerity in her spirit — especially when she admits that while confidence can be innate, it also takes practice.
“Honestly, I feel like everyone has an alpha in them or a CL in them,” she says emphatically, gesturing as if she’s conjuring an invisible force with her silver manicured claws. “I developed mine naturally from the very strong women I grew up around. But you can't be confident every single day. So that's something you need to admit, that's where we start. It’s in you, and for me, it's all about the practice of how and when you can bring it out.” But how do you keep that sense of self-assuredness when years have gone by and the moment to be that cultural bridge across the world seems to have passed?
CL’s solution was to come to a place where she can embrace both her stage persona and the more vulnerable Lee Chae-lin. It’s clear that both are talking now. “The funny thing is, there was a lot of [that worry], but also as soon as ALPHA came out, nobody talked about that anymore. You create the moment. If I put out an album, that is the moment.” She pauses, and a sheepish Chae-lin takes the wheel, laughing. “I know that sounded really cocky. But I really just try not to worry about the things I can't control.”
“I'm doing this because I love it,” she continues, turning serious. “I think it's the most luxurious thing you can do, doing what you love, and my measure of success. I love creating, I love being on stage. I'm not doing this for anyone else. I always have the mindset that I have nothing to lose. So that fear didn't stop me, and I don't want it to.”
But most importantly, Lee doesn’t necessarily see her purpose as being the connecting force at the center of music culture around the globe, as much as others perhaps want her to be. She just wants to be the pop star 12-year-old Chae-lin dreamed of becoming. “I always felt like I was an alien. Growing up in different cultures, I don’t fit anywhere. So I would always be for the underdogs and the misfits. I know there's a lot of people that don’t feel represented, and I would love them to feel connected and understood.”
So perhaps the real question is, why does it even matter that it took a while to get here? It’s clear that whoever she was poised to be eight years ago when she broke out on her own, she already is — and it’s a particularly Americentrist idea to think that lack of radio play or a Hot 100 hit would say otherwise.
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In February, Lee — and CL — turned 30. It’s an age that a lot of people tend to fret over, where the road ahead, or at least the expectations for where that road should lead, tend to loom a bit more ominously than before. The singer ponders the milestone, resting her head in her hands. “In your 20s, you don't know what you're doing and you just keep going, but now we know better — ‘been around long enough to know what I like,’” she says, quoting that same “Tie a Cherry” lyric with a sly smile on her face. “And now, we can play.” If there’s one thing we know about Lee, it’s that the only expectations she cares about are her own. It’s not about the title, but getting to fight another round.