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When Will CL Finally Take Off?

The K-Pop star gets ‘Lifted,’ but her U.S. career has yet to leave the ground

Getty Images
Getty Images

On August 18, a famous recording artist with great promise but scarce new product finally, mercifully, released fresh music to an increasingly impatient fan base. But unlike Frank Ocean’s Endless, “Lifted” — the U.S. debut single from K-Pop star CL — doesn’t sound like the confident, bold return of a singularly focused talent. Instead, it’s a formulaic pop mishmash that somehow feels undercooked and overdone at the same time.

To be fair, “Lifted” is pleasantly forgettable as a pop trifle. The song relies heavily on decades-old Method Man lyrics and lightly on everything else: a Z100-ready hook, a reggae-lite breakdown, and raps about getting high (cowritten, oddly but fittingly, by Asher Roth) that are as edgy as a beanbag. You could easily picture young Becky and her crew blasting it in the Jetta on the way home from the beach.

Worse musical crimes have been committed than pandering for a radio hit, even if CL’s desperate attempt at a summer anthem comes about three months late. The disappointment here is not in the timing, but the tepidness. Two long years after aligning with Scooter Braun with grand plans to break into the American market, CL — Korea’s version of Nicki Minaj (said Diplo) and Rihanna (said Dazed) — has officially launched with a song that Tinashe would reject as too corny and a video that might give Iggy Azalea pause.

Of course, disappointment is only the sad offspring of expectation. The hype around CL upon her U.S. arrival was certainly well-earned. As the most popular member of the iconic group 2NE1 and also on her own as a solo artist, CL stood out from the K-Pop factory line. Schooled in Japan, France, and Korea and drilled as a performer by YG Entertainment, the most Western-facing of the K-Pop monoliths, CL had ambition that extended beyond Asia. The odds were against her: Minus the lightning strike of her labelmate PSY, the track record of K-Pop stars attempting U.S. crossovers (Wonder Girls, Se7en, BoA, SNSD) has been abysmal. But CL, a fluent English speaker with Insta-famous fashion and undeniable “It” girl charisma, was different. Badass. Global. So when she signed with the man who made Justin Bieber famous, the deal carried an implicit promise: the unprecedented American breakthrough of an innovative, Asian pop superstar.

The opening salvos were modest, but not altogether discouraging. “Dirty Vibe,” a late-2014 Diplo–Skrillex creation featuring CL and fellow YG artist G-Dragon, sounds exactly like a Diplo x Skrillex x K-Pop song should sound — a bracingly cool novelty. Eight months later, CL dropped “Doctor Pepper,” another Diplo collabo, this time featuring RiFF RAFF and OG Maco — a miss, but not an air ball, and enough of an oddity to make it to the hip music blogroll: The Fader, Noisey, et. al. Then, last November, came “Hello Bitches,” and it appeared as if CL was finally finding her feet in America.

Furiously rapped in two languages, “Hello Bitches” was not a hit record, but its sound and overall aesthetic are a distinct statement of purpose. Something like: Hello, bitches. I’m CL. I rap, I dance, I speak English, I speak Korean, and I don’t look quite like any pop star you’ve seen before. In some ways, the song was reminiscent of “The Baddest Female,” a 2013 CL solo record that, although a little too radical to fully catch on in Korea, was a tantalizing glimpse at her electrifying potential. At her best, CL has always commanded the stage with a fearless authority and self-belief. “Hello Bitches,” unburdened by K-Pop norms, seemed to signal the next step in CL’s American experiment.

That was nine months ago. The experiment, it seems, has been rebooted. “Lifted” — apparently recorded shortly after “Hello Bitches” was released — is now being touted as CL’s “first single,” a saccharine, derivative concoction that suggests the cooks in the kitchen remain unsure of what they’re trying to serve. Is she M.I.A.? Nicki? Missy? (My response: “How about CL?”)

Part of her U.S. mission, CL told Paper last August, was “to set an example of an Asian girl.” She continued: “I want them to be stronger and tell them that it’s OK to be different.”

“A lot of Asian girls love being basic because it’s safe,” she said. There’s still time yet, but one hopes CL doesn’t succumb to that exact fate.