10:06 am - 02/28/2018

Inside CL’s four-year struggle to make it big(ger) in America

For a time, the Korean pop phenom’s U.S. crossover felt imminent. So what is standing in her way?
By Owen Myers
Illustration Sharon Gong

In November, K-pop’s self-proclaimed “baddest female” seemed to be at breaking point. The Korean pop phenomenon known as CL was a centerpiece guest on “Livin’ The Double Life,” a Seoul-based TV show that promises intimate insight into the lives of the country’s best-known personalities. Live interview elements were interspersed with pre-recorded segments that generally veered towards light, enjoyable fluff: CL bonding with L.A. teens over In-N-Out burgers, or adorably failing to master the “fireman spin” at a pole-dancing class. But in one particularly vulnerable part, when she talked about her four-year struggle to succeed in America, her eyes filled with tears. “I didn't even know that it was hard,” she said, her voice cracking. “Since [a K-pop artist crossing over] never happened before, there's no path I can follow. People want to help but they don't know how to help.”

Three years earlier, CL’s U.S. ascendance had seemed inevitable. In November 2014, she’d signed a management and label deal with Scooter Braun, who had masterminded the careers of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. (To this day, CL has dual management under Braun’s SB Projects and her Korean label, YG Entertainment.) Seoul-born, and raised in Japan and France, CL was  already regarded as one of Asia’s most captivating performers as the leader of Korea’s punkish all-women band, 2NE1. Thanks to global fans and her long-running affiliations with Western fashion designers like Jeremy Scott, that recognition had started to spread. In the immediate aftermath of her deal with Braun, CL moved to Los Angeles and made solid inroads in the States. She danced with Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande in a spontaneous-feeling viral video and linked up with Method Man. She toured with Diplo’s Mad Decent Block party. She got shout outs from Lorde, Charli XCX, and Grimes.

But since the release of her debut U.S. single, “Lifted,” in summer 2016, CL’s American dream has seemed to be on hiatus. Even though she says she’s recorded over 200 songs for her first English-language album, an initial stream of new music has dried to a trickle. CL continues to be in demand in Asia, and performed at the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. That was a big global look, but it exists in stark contrast to her lack of promotion in America. Her fans, who call themselves GZBs (gizibe is Korean for “bad bitch”), have taken to flooding Braun’s mentions with memes and irate messages that demand the release of her album.

In her Korean-language music, CL declared herself to be “bad,” but, in media-trained interviews, it was hard to see what that meant beyond a vague desire to be “mischievous, courageous, and strong.” Eleven years into her career, though, she did something truly rebellious. On December 31, 2017, CL uploaded 90 seconds of a dazzling new music video to her Instagram, for the previously unheard song “All In.” The post has since been deleted, but the clip teased CL’s best solo music to date, a squiffy electro banger powered by helium horns, with lyrics that lay out her terms for a relationship, sung with an assurance and a seductive flair. The video combines slick choreography and moody scenes in dark tunnels with guest star Vic Mensa. “Showing this little bit that I am able to may get me in trouble,” CL wrote. “But it’s worth the risk.”

I kind of gave up on that video,” says Matthew Mazur, a New York-based stylist who worked on the clip and has collaborated with CL since summer 2016. “It was supposed to come out [in 2016], but it never did.” The costly shoot had been a grind, spread over three 16-hour days on an L.A. soundstage. The video’s director Dave Meyers, who has directed iconic hip-hop videos like “Get Ur Freak On” and “HUMBLE.,” was equally confused by the delay. “Most of the other artists I work with [release the video] literally the day I finish [it]” he says. “It was nice to see her leak it, but it’s actually a good time for me to call her and ask what’s going on. Like, ‘What the hell? You’re so fucking talented.’”

In the wake of the leak, CL went on a spree of favoriting comments underneath her “All In” post that criticized her Korean label YG. One fan wrote, “I’m sure [the leak] is because of @fromyg [YG’s president, Yang Hyun-suk]. I don’t understand why she signed with @scooterbraun if she won’t be allowed to release any song[s].”

YG Entertainment and Scooter Braun declined to comment for this story. A planned interview with CL was rescheduled multiple times and eventually nixed by YG.

In their heyday of 2009-2014, CL’s group 2NE1 had few rivals in global pop. The four-piece’s music, a post-Timbaland reimagining of futuristic synth-pop, came alive in performances that took the eccentricity in K-pop’s DNA to fiercer, weirder places — like when they smashed up their own platinum discs in the video for “I Am The Best,” or when CL rapped with a parrot on her shoulder. But if 2NE1 were ciphers for a fantasy of fearless living, they also seemed, in some ways, more relatable and “real” than their rivals. Songs like “Lonely,” or their soaring guitar-backed 2011 anthem “Ugly,” spoke directly to human insecurities, not unlike empowerment anthems by U.S. pop stars like P!nk and Kelly Clarkson. CL was also active behind the boards, and had writing credits on half the tracks from the band’s fantastic final album, 2014’s Crush. The album reached No. 61 on the Billboard 200, giving K-pop its highest-charting U.S. album at the time.

But throughout 2NE1’s peak years, CL sometimes spoke of a systemic culture at YG that cast a darker shadow over the band’s honest-feeling songs. It’s no secret, in a country that has been dubbed the world capital of plastic surgery, that many of Korea’s pop idols have undertaken cosmetic procedures. But CL said that that her label tried to coerce her to go under the knife against her will. “They told me to get plastic surgery before my debut, she told ELLE in 2013. “I stood up for myself and said ‘No, I'm not doing it.’” On a Korean television show in 2012, she said that YG Entertainment’s founder, Yang Hyun-suk, called 2NE1 “ugly” when they were rehearsing without makeup.

Looking back, it’s possible 2NE1 never spent enough time doing U.S. promotion to have a serious shot at crossing over. For Korean acts scoring No. 1 hits and lucrative endorsement campaigns back home, spending months grafting in the States is often simply not worth the “opportunity costs,” as one YG agent put it to The New Yorker in the fall of 2012, when discussing K-pop stars’ brand opportunities in Asia. But when Psy’s mammoth EDM hit “Gangnam Style” infiltrated the Western consciousness in the summer of 2012, YouTube views of his fellow Korean artists’ videos tripled. The power players of the American music industry couldn’t fail to notice the moneymaking possibilities of introducing east Asia’s banner acts to the Western mainstream.

While other label heads had previously been cautious about the potential challenges in translating K-pop to the U.S. public, Scooter Braun doubled down. Less than two months after the release of “Gangnam Style,” Braun signed Psy — like CL, a YG artist — to his management company and label, SB Projects. A video posted to Psy’s YouTube channel in September 2012 shows the artist taking shots of Soju with Braun in the Hollywood hills to celebrate. A year, and a few more shots later, CL followed suit.

Braun recruited Chicago-born Dan Suh, who’d previously worked closely with Psy, to be CL’s day-to-day manager. (Suh confirmed to The FADER that he no longer works with CL or Braun, but declined to comment further.) Throughout 2015, CL hunkered down in L.A. working on “some more American-leaning music,” says Jasper Goggins, president of Mad Decent. At the label, Goggins worked on CL’s first big U.S. feature, an EDM banger “Doctor Pepper,” where she shared credits with Diplo, OG Maco, and Riff Raff.

“No one was treating it as ‘this will be the [mainstream] next hit for her,’” says Goggins. “At first it was kind of a joke, but then we were like, ‘this is kind of awesome.’” With the pressure off, CL let loose, spitting flamboyant rhymes and confidently flexing at a debauched Las Vegas party in the video. Speaking over the phone in January, OG Maco remembers CL’s succinct explanation of the song’s meaning: “I’m the queen bitch, I’m the boss.”

“Doctor Pepper” was never meant to be a serious statement of of CL’s artistic intent, but singing lyrics about soda with Riff Raff felt slightly gimmicky all the same. With 2NE1, CL’s music had begun to incorporate zeitgeisty moments of cool restraint, but “Doctor Pepper” was a backwards slide into an EDM sound that, by 2015, felt stale. That year, CL entered the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it feature on PSY’s “Daddy” — a wise-cracking follow-up to “Gangnam Style” that currently has 300 million YouTube views.

That same year, CL put a fresher flip on hectic electronic pop with “Hello Bitches,” a buzz track that featured tough-talking raps in both English and Korean. At Asia’s premier music-centric awards show, the MAMAs, her stunning performance of the song included revving motorcycles and an all-women squad of dancers led by choreographer Parris Goebel. “I wish western award shows were like this,” wrote Lorde in a tweet, echoing a long-held sentiment shared by K-pop fans worldwide.

But “Hello Bitches” failed to chart, and CL’s announced collaborations with BloodPop, DJ Dahi, Diplo, Skrillex, and Bibi Bourelly never surfaced. That same year, she instagrammed a shot with Grimes in what looked like to be a studio of sorts, but nothing has come from that, either. OG Maco describes two “dope club bangers” he has in the can with CL that are stuck in limbo. “I don’t really know what’s going on with them,” he says. “Why they haven’t brought her over to let her be what she is, I’m not really so sure.”

But for CL’s official English-language debut, Scooter Braun had a plan. In spring 2015, he introduced her to Asher Roth. Roth was an early SB Projects client, a Pennsylvania-born rapper who rode his frat boy image all the way to a Top 5 album in 2009. He collaborated with CL on “Lifted,” a generically catchy pop song centered around a Wu-Tang sample and punctuated with “Paper Planes”-esque cash register sounds. “[CL] was starting anew and getting involved in more of a hip-hop space,” Roth tells me. In a late-night session in L.A., Roth says, he wrote around 60% of the first verse of “Lifted” with CL and Teddy Park, a YG producer who has collaborated with CL since her 2NE1 days. “[Braun and Suh] wanted real lyrics, with complexity and dexterity. They really wanted help getting CL’s personality across, rather than just like, ‘Hey, here’s a female, she’s already popular, Iggy Azalea worked so she’ll work too.’

At times, CL has been criticized for lifting from cultures that are not her own. There was outcry after she wore a “chola” look in one 2013 video, as well as when she incorporated a Quran verse into some performances on her 2016 U.S. tour (she later apologized on Twitter). The “Lifted” video, which was filmed in the summer of 2015 and released a year later, features a cameo from Method Man and uneasily navigates the imagery of ’90s rap videos.

With glossy direction from Dave Meyers, CL’s dancing with friends in a Brooklyn basketball court shows her decade-honed star power. But it’s less comfortable to see her rocking chunky gold jewelry and clutching a paper-bagged 40oz in the streets of New York. Keeping in mind CL’s millionaire status and cultural background, at times the “Lifted” video feels like a ploy to align her with the “cool” social signifiers of a black, inner city experience that does not belong to her. The single’s reaction was lukewarm, although it became her second Billboard Hot 100 entry. In October 2016, it landed at number 94 on the singles chart.

It’s illuminating to see new musical forms created when locally specific styles merge. Some of CL’s most effective moments have been when she’s put her individual spin on Western music tropes. When she rapped Korean verses over the “It's All About The Benjamins” beat at Miami's Ultra Music Festival, or lit up the stage with a backdrop of Hangul graffiti on The Late Late Show, CL showed a knack for nodding to her home country’s culture while embracing her favorite things about the U.S. It also proved that she didn’t need to borrow from other cultures for a memorable performance.

Not everyone in CL’s camp appears to share her comfort with a globally-minded take on pop. Dave Meyers says that there were initial plans for a “more off-putting and cool” follow-up to “Lifted,” with expletive-heavy raps and an inventive electronic edge. But CL’s American team got nervous and switched to the more Top 40-sounding “All In” — of which, at the time of this writing, we’ve still only heard a 90-second leak. And, in a tense appearance on “Livin’ The Double Life” in November, Braun blamed touring commitments with 2NE1 for the delay with CL’s U.S. music. But that doesn’t seem like the full story, as she hasn’t toured with her former band since 2014. Meanwhile, CL consistently jabbed at her Korean label throughout January 2018, saying that all they care about is money, and that her plan for the year is: “more waiting for YG to release my album.”

Korean artists are flourishing, and their ability to make solid inroads in the U.S. charts is unquestionable. In the past year, K-pop boy band BTS have scored a top 10 album, dominated the AMAs with a showstopping performance, and become the first K-pop act to appear on the cover of Billboard. In many interviews, CL has spoken of her stateside ambitions. In a 2016 video for TIME, she said: “There’s no one female pop star that’s representing all the girls that [are] living out here [in the U.S.]. I want to represent Asian girls.” That dream is still achievable for CL, but it’s hard to know what will happen without a clear picture of the behind-the-scenes forces that seem to be standing in her way.

It’s undeniable that none of her English-language music measures up to the electrifying heights of 2NE1 at their peak. Since “Hello Bitches,” CL’s songs have felt somewhat impersonal, and the nebula of uncertainty that has surrounded her for nearly half a decade has grown increasingly harder to ignore. She spent summer ’16 in Seoul, working on a Korean-language 2NE1 album that was eventually scrapped by YG. The group officially disbanded in November 2016, and a tepid farewell single, “Goodbye,” came the following January. CL released just two new songs in 2017: a bland contribution to the My Little Pony OST, and a bizarre guest appearance on a Lil Yachty album track.

It’s perplexing that CL’s partnership with Braun hasn’t opened doors for collaborations with artists dominating U.S. pop radio; she’d certainly bring a unique magic to a feature spot with Top 40 heavyweights like Zedd or Kygo. But there could be an even more meaningful way for CL to connect with new fans, one that doesn't involve big-name collaborations. Some of pop’s most beloved young artists, from SZA to Lorde to Julia Michaels, have found success and acclaim by turning the personal into the universal, by translating their intimate conflicts into radio-ready art. If CL can find a way to use music to reflect on her own complex life story, including her industry struggles, it’s probable that her songs will have a better shot at connecting with listeners. It's likely that her voice will ring out louder than ever.

source: thefader,
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mc1a 28th-Feb-2018 10:18 am (UTC)
This was a great article. Fuck YG.
lily_of_west 28th-Feb-2018 11:07 am (UTC)
Her teams are awful. I get that her US team got frustrated when she put everything on hold to go back and do the supposed 21 cb but I don't understand why they didn't spring into action after the disbandment was made official. If they don't take this opportunity now after she got so many people interested in who she is after the closing ceremony, they need to pack everything up and shit the door. I get she's under contracts in both labels but damn I wish she'd just leave.
gioia 28th-Feb-2018 11:43 am (UTC)
200 songs recorded and still unreleased? when are they going to? at this rate those songs will sound dated in about another year or two.
cxxl 28th-Feb-2018 12:27 pm (UTC)
Her teams are fucking her over whether the situation means to or not. I know people joke on her and say she is starting again every single time, but it seems obvious it’s not really her doing. They don’t know how to market her, or are scared of repercussions of failing.
Also I feel like CL is still used to idol treatment and a majority of the technical/logistical side of her business being handled by Others. It’s to be expected, but I think it’s time to leave if you can. Is she still waiting on approval, because miss need to smell the bath salts and see they not going to give it. At some point she has got to say fuck it, and start dropping shit herself. Like none of her superiors are looking out for her (not YG, not Scooter, not daytime Yuh the manager or whatever).
premonitioner 28th-Feb-2018 01:21 pm (UTC)
I may not like her music much, and side eye her a lot of the time, but CL has a stage presence that's rare and to have it wasted like this is just...sad.
hurtmybones 28th-Feb-2018 01:33 pm (UTC)
2NE1 was a convenient excuse for her US management and YGE to lay the blame on but the group's been unofficially dead since 2014 and officially dead since 2016 and we're at 2018 and they still haven't done shit for her. had 2NE1 still been active she could have handled a US debut and the prerequisite 1-every-2-years half-assed 2NE1 comeback, if her management teams weren't such complete hacks. which is why I never got either side of the "her US debut is holding the group back/2NE1 is holding her US debut back" arguments. she could have done both and yet her companies left her with neither. they just don't care. YGE took whatever connections she brought in but can't even drop a couple of tracks for her ok. her lackluster Olympics performance could have been of a new song but nahhhh let's recycle some old shit and call it a day. it's frustrating and I don't see it changing anytime soon. countdown to YG pushing out some CL-but-pretty soloist in the same vein of 2NE1-but-pretty and nailing that coffin shut for good.
lily_of_west 28th-Feb-2018 02:52 pm (UTC)
I agree with most of it but it's a fact she kinda dropped everything when YGe said they were planning group cb and then well the rest went as you say, blame being put between the two because both her teams are incompetent.

Also as far as closing ceremony goes I don't think they would have ever let her perform new material (unless she had released sth at least a month prior and it did great on both sk and intl charts). They wanted songs that had at least been heard by people before. That's why EXO performed Growl too, arguably their biggest hit and CL did IATB.
dewi_matahari 28th-Feb-2018 02:29 pm (UTC)
This pretty much just confirmed what we all already knew - no one, including CL herself, knows wtf to do with her.

Btw, this article has been edited in a way which shows just how little control she has right now. Originally, this paragraph: "YG Entertainment and Scooter Braun declined to comment for this story. A planned interview with CL was rescheduled multiple times and eventually nixed by YG." included a quote from her manager.

""CL really wants to do it," her manager Josephine Park wrote at the end of a lengthy email chain, "but she does not have power over HQ."

From: https://twitter.com/mbmelodies/status/968254196746141696
timetobegin 28th-Feb-2018 03:05 pm (UTC)
Great article, I really enjoyed reading all quotes from people who've worked with her and whose work felt through. The question at hand still remains: what is holding either YG or SB back from releasing her music? Artistic/conceptual differences, as is implied at the end? In any case, it wouldn't be the first time that a Kpop company doesn't do anything with their artists for reasons that make little sense.
nekobot 28th-Feb-2018 03:13 pm (UTC)
It's ridiculous that she not only had to turn down an interview with the Fader, but that as of now all of the interviews she has done in the west have been so extremely blah and insignificant. Has she done any photoshoots or something instead? I seriously don't get the approach to press from Korea, she's not supposed to be an idol here, she can let loose a bit - at this point mainstream America is checking for her so little that it's almost impossible for her to embarrass herself or ruin her image (which I doubt she would) anyway.
mikachi613 28th-Feb-2018 05:26 pm (UTC)
OMG can't you see her in a Nylon spread? The hipsters would go wild over her.
youtubelargo 28th-Feb-2018 03:23 pm (UTC)
I can't imagine that bailing from YG at this point would hurt her at all. Her situation just grieves me. She's basically being held hostage by a sexist asshole... just because. Ugh
thebloomroom 28th-Feb-2018 03:45 pm (UTC)
Yg is such a piece of shit. i hate this signing artists so no one else can have them bs, he makes me so mad. 2ne1 made him a lot of money over the years, I dont get why he doesnt want to make more if anything but YG is a pos esp to women so i shouldnt be surprised
mikachi613 28th-Feb-2018 05:25 pm (UTC)
Great article, basically confirms what we have been suspicious of for years. She's not entirely a victim here, while her management is obviously crappy in both the US and Korea, she's an intelligent human who's been in the industry long enough to take a little initiative.

I love her to pieces, but this "woe is me" victimhood stuff is a bit off-character for her. She needs to cut her losses and find new management ASAP because YG clearly does not prioritize her at all. (Makes me wonder about Blackpink too, considering they've released basically no music)
mjspice 28th-Feb-2018 06:51 pm (UTC)
MTE. She should move elsewhere if she wants to go "international:.
chukachukachoo 28th-Feb-2018 05:42 pm (UTC)
I know on this site it's the fun thing to make fun of CL but as a fan of her and 2NE1, I always just felt sad for her (and the group as a whole). YGE has a pattern with female artists that's hard to ignore. He disbanded one so he could marry one of the members. 2NE1 was his most successful girl group and he hesitated to even promote them, insulted their looks constantly, etc. Blackpink still only has like 5 songs and no album. He also reuses to give them a concept that isn't "2NE1 but pretty". And where is Lee Hi?

It also gets on my nerves when people say CL is YG's golden child when she hasn't released music in forever and he couldn't even provide her with enough dancers for the freaking OLYMPICS.

After watching parts of "Living the Double Life" it's clear that she lacks support systems from both sides. And she seriously lacks control (as seen by the fact that she couldn't even interview for this article). When 2NE1 disbanded officially, I thought it would have been best for CL to either join a smaller or independent label because the group was never properly promoted to its full potential. Like, she can't even release a mixtape for the time being?

also side note: she needs a new stylist. I don't understand why anyone is putting large amounts of fabric on a 5'2" frame. and she has a nice body so it makes even less sense to cover everything up.

Edited at 2018-02-28 05:56 pm (UTC)
kyokomurasaki 28th-Feb-2018 06:07 pm (UTC)
At this point I'm just praying for her to leave YG and join Hyorin's label or something because the absolute mismanagement of her career is just astounding - she's been putting the work in but none of it's been allowed to see the light of day.

I did have a laugh at this line: "[Braun and Suh] wanted real lyrics, with complexity and dexterity" because they did not achieve that at all lol. Dr. Pepper was literally written in 2 seconds as a joke and Lifted is corny as fuck and it's not the type of song that's going to grab anyone's attention. Hello Bitches is a banger but it wasn't promoted at all. She needs good music if she's going to get anywhere but she's apparently not able to release any of it.
mikachi613 28th-Feb-2018 08:42 pm (UTC)
I would kill for a Hyorin-CL duo song
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