The following story originally appeared in Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 12.
In Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film, Interstellar, Murph had to wait seven years for every hour Cooper spent on Miller’s planet. Albert Einstein’s theory of gravitational time dilation explains this odd phenomenon: that the closer one is to the center of gravity, the slower time passes. And despite her standing only a few feet from her in this studio — we’re at the same level of gravity — I desperately want time dilation to apply right now. Watching her pose in front of the camera, professionally adjusting the angle of her gaze with every second of the flash, I want Einstein to show up in this studio and help me slow the time.
“I’m an alien,” she introduces herself. “A musician-alien.”
Despite the irony of what she tells me, I already know she’s an earthling — one that’s been known as the leader of K-pop group 2NE1, or “CL,” for the last seven years. She’s never made a formal debut outside South Korea (at the time of writing this in late-February), but perhaps you’ve heard of CL from Skrillex’s 2014 single, “Dirty Vibe,” or Diplo’s “Dr. Pepper,” featuring Riff Raff and OG Maco. “I’ve only been prepping for my US album for about a year now. What I did with Mad Decent and Skrillex just feels like collaborating with friends.”
Some of CL’s other friends include Snoop Dogg, A$AP Rocky, Luka Sabbat, Alexander Wang, Scooter Braun — and the list continues. Braun in particular took a liking to CL first and beckoned her to America last year where she signed with School Boy Records, becoming labelmates with Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen. How CL caught the attention of the star-shaping talent manager is no accident: over the years, she effectively positioned herself as Asia’s hip-hop queen, and, in her own words, the world’s “Baddest Female.”
Back to the studio: “I’ve always wanted to do a solo album in English,” tells the silver-haired performer. For someone who says she hasn’t even begun her solo activities, CL is strikingly calm on her own. At the time of our conversation, which is nearing 2AM, she doesn’t let the hurried movements and passive yawns of the studio staff put her in any rush. “I just got back from LA yesterday and I’m flying to Shanghai for an event tomorrow,” she says with nonchalance. It’s as if she’s already fully come to terms with her independence and the pressure that comes with it. While her public identity has largely been shaped by 2NE1, she’s eager to strike out on her own.
When girl group 2NE1 (read as ‘twenty-one’) first debuted in 2009, it was like a disruptive tornado in the Korean music industry. They made a bang with first track, Fire, whose music video consisted of a massive Rolls-Royce and four heavily eyelined girls dancing in adidas sneakers and LEGO jewelry. While other girl groups were busy singing about one-sided love and melancholy breakups, 2NE1 sang of power, individuality, and having fun. “We ‘bout to set the roof on fire baby / You better ring the alarm / This light won’t last forever but there’s nothing to lose / I want to go crazy / I want to run faster / I want to scream,” the lyrics went. This shock provided a new standard of what female musical acts could act like, look like, and sound like — not just in Korea, but in all of Asia.
“2NE1” also sounds like “to anyone,” and this holds the group’s most important message: that music is for anyone and everyone. Their addictive hip-hop, dubstep and reggae beats, combined with uncomplicated verses, powerful dance moves and flashy designer clothes, signalled a challenge to musical genres previously reserved for “hardcore” male artists. With their instant rise in popularity also came Asia’s gender democratization of hip-hop. Rhythmer.net, Korea’s representative hip-hop news platform, gave the chart-sweeping group four out of 10 of their annual award nominations the same year they debuted. And within two years, 2NE1 became the female group with the most grand prizes in the history of Mnet Asian Music Awards, Korea’s largest program of its kind that’s broadcasted live around the world.
Chaelin Lee was born in Seoul under a physicist father and entrepreneur mother, but spent much of her childhood in Tokyo and Paris: Tokyo because of her father’s work; Paris for international schooling on her own accord. “There were a lot of different races, and I grew up with all of them. I’m an open book,” she told Complex in an interview last year. Her multicultural upbringing allowed her a sort of unconventionality and boldness atypical of girls her age — not to mention the ability to speak multiple languages, a particularly attractive asset to K-pop agencies seeking to make foreign income. Her early travel and life experiences in these cities, including Seoul, gave CL the rare advantage to draw from a multitude of fashion and musical styles when molding her own character as an artist.
This advantage also gave her an unusual sense of independence and confidence. She was able to distance herself from Korea’s robotic education system, homogenous society, herd mentality. And so when she made up her mind to become a musician, looking to Korea’s YG Entertainment made the most sense: one of the country’s “Big 3” record labels, YG is known for granting its artists creative freedom to pursue their own projects. PSY and G-Dragon are exemplary success stories that also came out of YG: they compose and produce their own music, rather than have legions of groomers flock to them as other K-pop agencies would.
The rather daring and untraditional way CL got her audition remains a well-known tale among fans: she waited outside the agency’s parking lot, with a self-recorded mixtape in hand, and delivered it to YG owner and head producer, Hyunsuk Yang himself. She was 15. Her bold inner strength and charisma earned her the position of 2NE1’s leader, even though two of the four members were seven years older — a big deal in a country where even a one year age gap means the difference of treating them as an elder. (Update: 2NE1 is now a three-person group since Minzy’s leave in early April.)
Part of that boldness shines through in trap track, “Dr. Pepper,” whose 6.7 million-viewed music video shows CL going from a green Hummer limo to an awry Vegas house party. Even alongside American industry heavyweights like Diplo and Riff Raff, CL is at ease. She raps with authority, and is unfazed by the dozens of twerkers at her feet.
CL allegedly rushed the lyrics for “Dr. Pepper” after Diplo called for an impromptu recording session, literally taking inspiration from the moment at hand. She was drinking a can of “Dr. Pepper,” transforming the mundane activity into an unforgettable song. “I’m always a ‘now, now, now’ type of person. I’m more faithful to the present. I always have been,” she says with conviction.
“I get inspiration from the women in my family. They have a really strong energy force, and there’re a lot of them. I can’t pinpoint what it is, but I just feel like I’m getting stronger when I’m with them — like when I’m just chatting with my aunts and grandmother,” she says, smiling. Do they also sport pale blonde hair and black lipstick, or distressed jeans and fishnet tops? Not necessarily. “One of them is a gallerist, some of them are businesswomen, some are housewives.” Here, CL puts a stern emphasis on the last word, marking an equal level of respect for her child-rearing relatives as her professionally successful ones. “I definitely want to be a mom. That’s something I really want to do.”
CL’s choice of musical subjects reflects her love and pride for women. Her first solo single outside 2NE1, “The Baddest Female,” was a perfect manifestation of her persona. She was the first to take common words like “unnie” (what women call older sisters or familiar older women) and “gizibe,” (playful slang for ‘girl’), and coin them as her own. “Men call me honey, women call me unnie / I’m a bad gizibe / Not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good.” Everyone from toddlers to Japanese DJ Mademoiselle Yulia made appearances in the video, dancing to “the unnie.” This was way before the trend of “squad goals” came about, before Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood team of supermodel villains. Then late last year, her surprise street single, “Hello Bitches,” made a buzz with a powerful dance video performed with the infamous all-female crew, ReQuest. In a separate interview with W Korea, CL explained, “The word ‘bitch’ can be used playfully among friends. “Hello Bitches” is a gift to my Asian fans who’ve been waiting for my comeback but I also hope it serves as my proper introduction in the US. I felt it was a way to be as ‘me’ as possible. It was a focus on my identity.”
Some may misunderstand CL’s badass image as a result of rebelling against traditional femininity. But the opposite is true: it’s a complete embrace of her girl power, feminine desires, and maternal nature. CL just happens to be able to express them in men’s clothes, too.
As a performer, fashion also takes priority for CL. Her petite frame is always one of the first to don collections straight from the runway. She’s the constant muse of designers like Jeremy Scott and Nicola Formichetti, and mingles with Karl Lagerfeld and Jean-Paul Gaultier. Her sense of style is a free mix of the high and the low, but is also the result of carefully cultivated taste. Perhaps that’s why brands like Kenzo and adidas Originals have asked her to be a regional ambassador, or why Calvin Klein and Donna Karan called her to be the main guest and performer at their fashion shows in Asia. CL is never not busy. Currently, she’s also part of Alexander Wang’s WANGSQUAD for Spring/Summer 2016 alongside Travis Scott and Vic Mensa.
When asked about how she keeps her health in check in between all her work and travels, the answer isn’t rocket science: “I have to sleep at least six hours a day. And regulating food intake is important, which I’ve learned over the years. But the main thing is to focus,” says CL, gesturing with her hands to make a point. “It’s all about mentality. That’s how I recover from any situation.”
That mentality will continue to fuel CL in her solo endeavors, especially in the States. “During my year in America, I experienced a lot of failures and disappointments — internally, I mean. There were things that didn’t meet my expectations, or things that surprised me out of the blue. I think it was a time of finding myself, which is something I really needed.” She adds, “I’m also experimenting a lot with my sound. The kind of music I want to write and express has changed quite a bit.”
What is CL’s final goal? “My dream is to keep on doing what I’m doing. I want to do this work more. I want to meet more people and learn more things. I want to see the world. I want to experience more things in this lifetime.” But CL doesn’t need Einstein — or anyone else — to slow the time. “I’m almost there.”
Read the full story in Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 12, now available for purchase through our online shop as well as at fine retailers worldwide.
*CL’s quotes have been translated from an interview conducted in Korean