Rejoice, for the queen has returned!
OK, that’s my obligatory fangirl outburst out of the way. But it is certainly a significant moment when one of the second generation of K-pop’s biggest stars finally releases a full album of content, over four years after the legendary 2NE1 disbanded. Six years after “Hello Bitches”, CL has graced us with a full album, fittingly titled Alpha. Here we have 11 songs released under her own brand/agency Very Cherry, a new era after her release from YG Entertainment. Brimming with the confidence you would expect from such a title, CL delivers elemental narratives, tight production and a bold assertion of her position at the top of the K-pop tree.
With an artist like CL, undoubtedly one of the most successful idols of all time, there are certain things you expect from a debut album. This expectation is only heightened by her time with, and split from, YG Entertainment, a company whose image and style is completely intertwined with hers. We expect heavy hip-hop influences, an emphasis on stylisation, and utter bravado. These criteria are absolutely present here, and the importance of the album’s title highlights this. Naming her first collection of songs Alpha is a power move that needs to be backed up by a steady nerve, which we all know CL possesses.
This theme of confidence and dominance threads throughout the album, devoid of subtlety (though one could argue that this is a pretty tricky theme to do subtly), but refreshingly self-assured in its presentation. From the starting refrain of the album opener “Spicy” (spoken by fanboy John Malkovich), CL makes her core values clear: “Energy. Power. Chemistry.” The song is a stringent reminder of CL’s personality and style, which she cleverly intertwines with her identification as a Korean.
Where we from
Getting up higher
Making everything spice
Now put the fliers
CL is “spicy” and individual, whilst also a proud “fly Asian”, a statement that is startlingly absent from most of modern K-pop. The song is also bravely stripped back in its production, strong snares pulsing over a simple backing riff that allows the lyrics to shine through.
This measured production is echoed across the rest of the album. This may well be due to CL and her team’s experience in the music industry—this type of restraint comes with patience and a confidence in the structure of a song that often feels missing from rookie groups. This isn’t to say the songs are calm or minimal. “Paradise” and “My Way” utilise booming basslines and, in the case of the former, heavy vocoder. “Xai” opens with a sparkling little melody underlying the main song, while “Chuck” strips the rhythms back to scratchy electronic machinations, the main music coming from the mocking “la la la las” of the chorus.
What all of these songs have in common is that the production is universally controlled, never running into gimmicky or overblown territory. This would be easy to do, especially in the cockier tracks like “Chuck” or “My Way”, but they remain tight, making the musical decisions they need to make, and cutting off excess fat. This gives the lyrical expression integrity: it doesn’t feel like we’re listening to someone desperate to convince us of their abilities. CL already knows.
Take “Chuck” for example. Dismissing the pretenders and liars of the world–“chuck” is a homonym of “cheok”, a romanisation of 척, roughly translating as “to pretend”–CL confidently raps about her own outlook on the music industry.
Chaerin that’s my name who I am, I can’t lie
When they just pretend, I do it every day
Trend is just a trend, I be the wave boy
With an almost playground-style tone to the chorus’ speak-singing, and minimal backdrop, the attitude of these lyrics is laid bare. There is nothing to hide behind in these songs, and the lyrics don’t want to.
Talking of the playground, the magnum opus of the album comes in the penultimate track, 2020’s “Hwa”. This song taps into a Korean playground game that has become incredibly famous due to the recent phenomenon, Squid Game. In the song’s growling monotone of a chorus, CL snarls the key chant of the game “Red Light Green Light”, daring listeners to take a misstep in her intimidating presence.
When layered along with yet more childlike “na na” chants, bare rhythms, and a smooth bass, the song yet again showcases CL’s creativity and self-assurance. When she proclaims “Don’t sell your soul so easily / You know you that can’t kill me”, the song structure allows us to believe her. Precise layering and a clever use of childlike elements to demonstrate the simplicity of her message—”I’m in a different league”—create a great conclusion to the album’s mission.
Alongside the album’s goal to justify the album title, there is an interesting theme of the elements and nature peppered throughout. In “Chuck”, she raps of not wanting to “stagnate and rot keep flowing like water”, whilst the closing love song “5 Star” compares her lover to the ocean. Alongside water there is also fire, like in “My Way” with a “night that’ll burst with heat”. “Hwa” manages to tie these concepts together:
I’m fire, burning up the stage
I’m water, rousing you from your sleep
These two polarised concepts, comparable to the yin and yang that she also references in “Paradise”, could of course symbolise so much. Passion and calm, anger and serenity, activity and stillness. All of these ideas speak to elements of CL’s story, but more importantly, their inclusion speaks to a sense of balance in her character and her work. Whatever this imagery represents for her or the listener, the references to these elements speak to an equilibrium at CL’s core.
The choice to use these natural forces also creates a sense of the universal, of ideas that apply to each of us. This is cleverly interwoven through ample sky and star imagery, from “shooting for the stars” in “Tie a Cherry” to the sun and moon in “Xai”.
When the sun goes down, we find each other
When the moon rises, we find each other
We can see the balancing opposites again here in the sun and moon, only now the imagery becomes bigger, cosmic in scale. Just as CL’s shooting for the stars is an obvious symbol of ambition and its scope, so too the use of these heavenly bodies emphasises the breadth of her emotions and experience. This imagery shows us that Alpha is an all-encompassing experience of CL, from her earthly elements all way up into the stars.
This notion of balance is also echoed in the genre styles within the track list. As much as there is bombast from “Chuck”, “Spicy”, “Hwa”, “My Way” and more, there are also tender love songs. “Xai” features simple romantic moments as she asks to be told “something sweet”, while “Let It” is the album’s lightest moment, a light piano melody and a slower tempo telling us to “always do what we feel” and “head up to the sky”.
“5 Star” echoes similar romantic themes to “Xai”, though with more passion in its yearning, whereas “Siren” speaks to love’s darker, more sacrificial sides. Of course, it’s nothing new to mix slower, more emotional moments with the bigger, brasher tracks in an album. But by weaving in the imagery of balanced elements throughout various songs, these various styles more explicitly present as the different facets of CL as a performer and artist.
Ultimately, this is the greatest success of Alpha. For an album that has been awaited as long as this one, there was an expectation that something great had to be in the works. CL expertly meets these expectations, but in more holistic ways than some perhaps anticipated. We knew we would get hype tracks and declarations of dominance, but if this wasn’t backed up by well-constructed music, this would ring hollow. Through restrained music production, complex lyrical ideas, and a strong balancing of tone and style, CL has ensured that this hasn’t happened. The album and the artist know their worth and are not afraid to show it, creating layered songs that justify CL’s status at the top of her game.