K-pop royalty, gifted rapper, cutting-edge pop star — CL has already lived plenty of lives in the music industry. From her days in the pioneering K-pop girl group 2NE1 to her time as a solo artist, the South Korean singer (real name: Lee Chaelin) has helped push the business into a global era: a place where language and genre barriers are rules to break, not abide by, and where the sounds of the underground and the mainstream can mix freely.
Now, for the first time, she’s putting it all in one place with ALPHA, her debut studio album out today (Oct. 20). “It’s always been CL and Chaelin, Korean and English,” she tells Billboard. “I’m multicultural, and I have always been representing that. I think it started from who I am, and I am both [sides], so I merged the two and it became one thing. The whole message of ALPHA is CL and Chaelin finding balance.”
Late last year, CL opened up to Billboard about the long journey to her debut solo album and the behind-the-scenes changes she endured along the way. Now, as an independent artist, she’s taking the spotlight — “I didn’t have any features on this album because I wanted [to introduce] all the different characters of CL” — with 11 tracks spanning boisterous hip-hop (“SPICY”), ethereal mid-tempos (“Xai”) and anthemic pop cuts (“Let It”). “ALPHA [marks] the beginning since it’s my first album,” she says, “but also the attitude that comes with the word ALPHA — being fearless and choosing love over fear.” Here, in her own words, are the stories behind the songs.
“SPICY” is a very special song for me, and I wanted to make sure this was the first song that is introduced on ALPHA because I feel like it’s the 2021 version of “The Baddest Female” and “Hello Bitches” — very GZB Anthem-type songs. So I wanted to start my album with it. And it’s special because John Malkovich, whom I love and respect, did the narration for it. When I’m on stage performing it, it feels like he is there with me, and he was a very big energy that helped me through making this album. And I always love representing my spicy ladies!
2. “Lover Like Me”
I had this song for a while. When I opened up my treasure box, it was there. It made sense and was connected to ALPHA, so I chose to rework it, and I just love the message of it. It’s a great break-up song to help you move on to the next and in a very ALPHA attitude. I put this song out before the album was released because it serves as a message to end the era before ALPHA begins.
I love this song because it gives me MTV vibes [from] my teenage years. It makes me move! I actually have a dance video that I worked on around this because I think it needs a visual to express the song well. “Chuck” has a double meaning in Korea. One meaning is “pretentious and fake” and one means “bullseyes.” It’s about the duality, and I talk about that. I am excited about performing this track.
One of my personal favorites. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like this sonically as CL. The lyrics are 100% written by me. This is also a duality: It’s about CL’s love life in a way and how it’s always been private. On the hook it says, “We are gone when the sun is up and we meet when it’s dark, when the moon is up” and “whatever shines in the dark you can’t have or own.” And I feel like that’s what my relationship with me and the world is as someone that’s in the spotlight as a celebrity, performer, artist — however you want to label it.
5. “Let It”
This song gave me a feeling of when I was with the girls in 2NE1 and that whole era. I talk about how sometimes when things are out of your control, you can let it flow. You have yourself, and you gotta just believe that — that’s the message. And I definitely wanted to send that out to the world and to myself when I was going through the process of making ALPHA.
6. “Tie A Cherry”
This is the birth of Miss Cherry, a character that was created in the process of making ALPHA. She is very independent, self-made, fun and chill. Every characteristic that Miss Cherry has, this song touches on — the stage presence and everything.
It talks about my zone of when I feel like I’m in paradise. It’s not about a place, it’s about a state of mind you’re in and how you could be anywhere to feel that way. This is the most spiritual song I have on the album. I wrote all the lyrics, and it’s kind of an extension of “MTBD.” That track also had my spiritual message in there back then.
8. “My Way”
I feel like it’s the most K-pop-sounding song I have on the album. The message is like the title: It’s me going my way, doing things independently as an independent artist and doing the solo project — all these things. It’s the attitude I had for this project.
It’s about the emotions you have when you are trying your best in a relationship to not let the fire go out, but the signal is off.
This was the first song I put out as an independent artist. It has all the K-pop essence. To really understand the lyrics, you have to understand a traditional Korean game; there is a hide-and-seek riddle in the chorus, which is kind of like me saying, “Everybody freeze, I’m back!” There is another line that translates to “Mugunghwa [the national flower of Korea] has blossomed.” This is a reference to me, that I finally grew as an artist.
11. “5 STAR”
“5 STAR” is a feel-good love song — how I want to feel when I am in love, and how I want people to feel when they are in love. “5 STAR,” along with “HWA,” was one of the first songs I put out as an independent artist. “5 STAR” is the Chaelin side that people haven’t seen, and this is how I introduced everyone to that side of Chaelin.