CL – ‘ALPHA’ review: an incandescent return well worth the wait

After years of setbacks and soul-searching in pursuit of artistic independence, CL finally finds herself in her prime with her debut album

Since departing from her former label in late 2019, CL has made it her mission to unearth her artistic proclivities as an independent musician. With that came the creation of her long-awaited debut solo album, one that fans had been anticipating from the former 2NE1 member since at least 2013’s ‘The Baddest Female’, and it would officially be announced as ‘ALPHA’ in September last year.

However, CL would soon delay the release of ‘ALPHA’, and many were understandably dismayed by the news. She later explained the reason for the album’s delay to W Korea, where she shared that “there were a lot of things I needed to experience in order to learn” before she felt ready to release it.

Nearly a year after said delay, CL is finally ready to reclaim her title as one of K-pop’s elites with ‘ALPHA’. “This is me getting out of [my] comfort zone to the fullest. This is me releasing an album as an independent artist,” she told NYLON. “This is definitely a statement [as someone] coming from a K-pop system and also [from] being an idol.”

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‘Spicy’ opens the album with a familiar self-confidence, a vibe and message from CL we’ve come to know and love in the form of her past hits such as ‘Hello Bitches’ and ‘The Baddest Female’. “CL this the alpha leader / I ran all this way without rеsting but it’s only the beginning now / If you thought it was over, it’s only thе tip of the iceberg,” she declares in the first rap verse. It’s a fitting introduction to the album, of which she had described as the “start” of an era, per W Korea.

A lowkey cut on ‘ALPHA’ that could have been a strong contender for lead single is ‘Chuck’ – A self-aware bop about her penchant for setting trends. The lyrics, co-written by the singer herself, are self-explanatory: “Rather than running stuffily, I walk / I don’t want to be stagnant and rotting, flowing like water”. When paired with booming beats, intricately layered hip-hop beats and a catchy titular refrain, it becomes an instantaneous banger that better matches her appeal of edginess that has gracefully matured over time.

Another similarly vivacious track that further reinforces CL’s propensity for attitude-infused sounds is ‘My Way’. “I’mma do it my way / Just as I walked, just like me / I’mma do my way, my way, my way, my way, my way,” she chants commandingly in the refrain. On the same wavelength is ‘HWA’, which in a just world would have been an immediate hit, what with its catchy refrains and razor-sharp rap verses. It also interestingly interpolates the tune from the well-loved Korean children’s game ‘Red Light, Green Light’ – which many would now be acquainted with thanks to Squid Game.

‘Tie A Cherry’ is also cut from the same cloth of trap beats and sonorous beats, however takes things a level higher by including a remarkable display of both vocal and rap ability from CL. This may just be the perfect demonstration of her musical calibre, especially considering that she’s credited as the main writer of the song, with clever, tongue-in-cheek wordplay about tying a “cherry stem” with just your tongue.

Meanwhile, the trap beats, elements of siren sounds and whirling synths that form the foundation of ‘Paradise’ also aim for the same aural highs as other similar tracks on the album. Yet, when placed on the same record next to songs like ‘Tie A Cherry’, ‘My Way’ and ‘Chuck’, it comes across as relatively pedestrian.

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When the layers of ‘ALPHA’ are peeled back, you’ll find the more tender sides to the veteran idol laid bare. Take the English pre-release single ‘Lover Like Me’ for example – it’s notably a lot more chill than what we are used to from CL, though those trap snares and synths are definitely still present. ‘Lover Like Me’ is ultimately a well-balanced pop anthem that manages to weave in traces of her fierce aura while still being surprisingly sensitive.

‘Xai’ finds CL taking influences from deep and tropical house to create the perfect setting for its story, a narrative about yearning for her lover to stay by her side. Meanwhile, ‘Let It’ brings to mind 2016’s ‘Lifted’, with its groovy tempo alongside an introspective and giddily optimistic outlook: “Like me, always do what you feel like doing / And it’s okay, let’s shake it all off / Cause I’m always going to be me”.

‘Siren’, another vocal-focused track on the album, is unlike anything we’ve seen from CL before. “Who’s gonna love you like that?” she belts in the chorus of this English-language track, baring her soul over soaring instrumentals. The only complaint is that it’s way too short, coming in at just over three minutes.

‘ALPHA’, however, finds its tour de force in its closing track ‘5 STAR’. Despite having been out for over a year, this delicately affectionate song is equal parts universal and timeless. It shines a spotlight on CL’s vocals, heavily depending on it to carry the track forward – and that’s what makes it so refreshing.

Meanwhile, its lyrics, which sees herself and frequent collaborator and friend Tablo of Epik High credited as co-writers, are as poetic as they are catchy: “What more do you need? / Boy I got you in my arms / I only need you / This night without a star, shining”.

After years of hardship and soul-searching, CL is now in her prime with ‘ALPHA’. A homecoming by all definitions of the word, the singer-rapper takes an unabashed leap into the unknown while forging and fortifying her signature sound. ‘ALPHA’ signals a brand new era for CL as she grows into her own skin as a musician.

Details

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  • Release date: October 20
  • Record label: Very Cherry
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