2NE1, 15 years on: the group that changed the face of K-pop forevermore

It starts with whomping sirens, pulsating beats and deadpan repetition: “I am the best. I am the best. I am the best. I am the best. Th-th-the best.” Then it explodes. 2NE1’s signature song ‘I Am The Best’ is a taste of what it was like to experience the quartet in their heyday as the leaders of a new generation of K-pop.

A different sort of girl group arriving on the cusp of a new decade, 2NE1 grew rapidly to represent and inspire the South Korean music industry. Their rise led to a new wave of bold, fashion-forward and bombastic girl groups during K-pop’s second generation and they continue to influence the industry even more than a decade on. But to understand the dominating pulse of 2NE1’s career, it has to be understood that 2NE1’s first hit wasn’t ‘Fire’. No, it was a cell phone ad.

‘Lollipop’ with Big Bang, then one of Korea’s leading groups and 2NE1’s YG Entertainment labelmates, promoted an LG flip phone. It was a rainbow explosion of a music video that introduced 2NE1 – CL, Park Bom, Sandara Park (aka Dara) and Minzy – to the world in spectacular way. They were not only undeniably charismatic from their very first appearance, but each member was uniquely glamorous in ways that broke the mould on what it meant to be a girl group in K-pop at the time, pushing against stereotypes.

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‘Lollipop’ was the first hint that 2NE1 were destined to forge their own path in the world of music, as avant-garde go-getters with a penchant for catchy anthems about empowerment and independence. Beyond themes, the quartet also presented an alternative in terms of genres as well, taking influences from hip-hop, R&B, techno and more – while these sounds were always part of K-pop, but they had never been quite so prominent before in a girl group’s DNA as they captured global attention. (They never quite got away from the impact of tech ads; ‘I Am the Best’ was the soundtrack of a 2014 Microsoft laptop ad.)

They set the standard for a genre of K-pop that would ultimately be known as “Girl Crush”, a stylised show of boldly feminine anthems. Whether it was the introspective pop-rock reflection of self-hate in ‘Ugly’ to the forthright reggae-trap ferocity of ‘Come Back Home’, or the unfettered electro-snares of ‘Can’t Nobody’, and the earnest, quirky croons of ‘Missing You’, 2NE1 were undeniable hitmakers. Throughout the years, a myriad of K-pop groups – most notably future YG acts BLACKPINK and BABYMONSTER, but also many others beyond their home label – would take up the mantle and spread it far and wide.

2NE1 were the voice of a generation – for both their fanbase, known as Blackjacks, as well as the general K-pop listener – that was a little bit rowdier, rebellious and fiercer than what came before. From all over the world, fans and critics alike cheered on these four leaders of a new representation of womanhood in the K-pop spotlight, but beyond that it was the sheer presence of the four women that made the act the success it was.

Confidence was key to every release, and it carried them to the top of the game. It was the fire of CL blending with the soul of Park Bom and the pep of Dara and the dynamism of Minzy, coming together so naturally that it felt revolutionary. While new music came slower than their counterparts, this gave every song a sense of preciousness, as if every music video release felt like it may be the last great pop production of our time.

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With their edgy sound and vibe, 2NE1 managed to cross international music industry boundaries and became the darlings of creatives across fashion and music worlds. While K-pop artists now are collaborating with luxury and streetwear designers even before their debuts, 2NE1 were there first, inspiring them and making their brands more powerful by donning them.

While 2NE1 were undoubtedly a behemoth as a group, it’s impossible to not discuss the power that CL encapsulated as she rose to represent the quartet internationally. She was friends, and a muse, for then-Moschino creative director Jeremy Scott, and collaborated with EDM hitmakers Skrillex and Diplo. A series of fiery solo singles in 2015 – ‘Doctor Pepper’ and ‘Hello Bitches’ – preceded her 2016 hit ‘Lifted’, which made her the first-ever female Korean soloist to land on the Billboard Hot 100.

When asked to write this article, I struggled with encapsulating such a phenomenally monumental pop culture era that was 2NE1’s zenith and legacy which, in 2024, feels very far away. I asked my friends and followers, many of them second gen K-pop fans, what “2NE1” calls to mind. Themes quickly appeared: phrases like “friendship”, “individuality”, “boldness”, “courageous” and “stylish” erupted out of people who declared 2NE1 as their gateway to K-pop, their inspiration to try new things, the women who brought them and their best friends together, and just generally the voice of a generation.


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Their impact was felt so broadly despite their limited discography: 2NE1’s career, like so many other acts under YG Entertainment, was marked by long breaks and scant releases throughout their tenure, before a series of unfortunate circumstances led first to a hiatus, then Minzy leaving the group, before finally being disbanded abruptly in 2016 with a final single ‘Goodbye’ in January 2017. Though their time was brief, the two albums, two EPs, nearly 20 singles 2NE1 released changed the K-pop world forever.

It can be felt even now, with the acts across K-pop putting their own spin on the genre elements that 2NE1 first popularised. Beyond BLACKPINK and Baemon, there are countless active girl groups today, such as (G)I-DLE (who are managed by CUBE Entertainment, which also produced 4Minute, another great second generation K-pop girl crush primogeniture), EVERGLOW and ITZY, who hail from the artistic and stylistic heritage setdown by 2NE1.

Despite its name – or perhaps in spite of it – 2NE1’s final release ‘Goodbye’ wasn’t really a goodbye: at Coachella in 2022, CL reunited the group on-stage for the first time since 2015. The end that had been forced on 2NE1 didn’t mean an end for their story, and it has led to consistent reports of a potential reunion album or single whenever the members are spotted together. Hope springs eternal for 2NE1’s return to the spotlight, as their legacy continues eternally.

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