Album review: Crystal Kay - 637 -Always & Forever-

Album review: Crystal Kay - 637 -Always & Forever- | Random J Pop

If I were to compare Crystal Kay’s second studio album to another, it’d be Hikaru Utada’s First Love. Both albums manage to tow this perfect line between meeting expectations whilst also subverting them. But the most remarkable thing about both albums is that they manage to both be accurate representations of what it’s like to be a teenager, whilst also delivering songs which are so good that they transcend ages, and break out of just being teen-bops.

Teenage years are really fucking hard and one of the most awkward phases of life. The teenage existence is habitually hopscotching between being a kid and being an adult - both on our own terms, and on the terms of adults around us. Confusingly being aged up when you’re told ‘You’re acting like a child’, and then being aged down because ‘You’re still just a kid’. Because of this we developed this strange world view, where we saw things through the eyes of a child, and the eyes of what we thought things would seem like as an adult. Our faux-adult view of the world was coloured and dramatised in a way in which only a teen could colour and dramatise it - but it was still real to us. It’s hard to dismiss a 15 year old singing about love, because who are any of us to say ‘that’s too young’ given the things and people we fell in love with at that age? And even if that love wasn’t real, the feeling was real, and that is a universal feeling at any age. This is what captured the hearts of everybody when they first heard Hikaru Utada’s “First Love” and “Automatic”, and is what drives pretty much the whole of Crystal Kay’s 637 -Always & Forever-.

The same way that the experience of being a teenager was being told that you’re a kid and also being told to grow up bleeds into much of the music that was put out by teens. But Black teens always seem to be aged up to a greater extent than their white peers. Crystal Kay being in Japan wasn’t exempt from this, but being in Japan did protect her somewhat. 637 -Always and Forever- was a celebration of the fact that Crystal Kay was a teen having these huge life experiences, which again is a universal thing; because nobody is ever too young or too old to experience things for the first time. And much like Hikaru Utada, Crystal’s perspective and take on things is unique because she wasn’t like other Japanese girls. And despite Crystal not contributing to the writing of her songs as Hikaru had done, she was surrounded by a team of people who tailored her songs for her and captured the essence of who Crystal was and who she would go on to be.

637 -Always and Forever- features tell-tale songs of crushes, being coy and hangin’ with the girls. But then it also has this grown ass songs like “Curious”. A song about telling somebody ‘Look. I ain’t in love with you. But I do wanna know how you feel about me’. Or songs such as “Couldn’t Care Less”, about letting an ex lover know that you’re really not looking for affirmation of their love or to get back with them, but to inform them that what they did was shitty and it broke you. (A cover of a song from some German girl group). The great thing about 637 is that the range of songs feel very age appropriate - i.e No songs of the ‘Come touch me’ and ‘Hit it from the back boy’ variety. And yet, despite a third of the songs being about teenage shit, there is still a universality to them that means a grown ass adult can vibe to them and relate to them, just as much as a teenager can. Then there is the fact that these are just plain good songs.

Album review: Crystal Kay - 637 -Always & Forever- | Random J Pop

The R&B songs on this album also stand the test of time far better than I ever imagined they would, despite being very much of the time. The producers and songwriters that Crystal was teamed with on this album got R&B in a way that not many Japanese producers and songwriters at the time did. The Giant Swing duo of T. Kura and Michico have pretty much helped shape R&B in Japan for the past two decade. They would go on to not only work with Crystal Kay for most of her albums throughout her career, but would also play a huge part in Namie’s sound during the third wind of her career when she grabbed Ayu and Kumi by their lacefronts and tossed them aside. “Girl’s Night”, “Ex-Boyfriend” and “He Will Be Mine” sound exactly as you’d expect Japanese R&B in the early 2000s to sound, but they each hit in ways that R&B takes didn’t hit when other artists did them. Which is largely because T. Kura and Michico crafted good songs, but also because Crystal Kay got R&B in a way that not many other Japanese artists did. As much as fans live for Rhythmkaru & Bluestada, Crystal Kay sounds better singing R&B, because her voice is just plain better suited to it.

Whilst Crystal wouldn’t noticeably struggle maintaining a balance with her sound until Spin the Music years later, you do get a sense of division as early as 637 -Always and Forever-. Although referring to it as ‘division’ at this point of Crystal Kay’s career probably isn’t fair.

The latter half of the album is far lighter on R&B cuts and is more a case of light pop bops. These are good songs. Some of which are great in fact. But it does show that Sony wanting Crystal to lean into pop was something that was always in the making. It doesn’t hurt the album in any way, because the brand of pop here does feel tethered to the R&B cuts due to them being of the same time period. Songs such as “Another Best Thing” and “Holiday Fighter” sound like the dime a dozen more indie leaning pop songs that women were releasing in the late 90s and dominating radio with. Des’Ree, Sixpence None the Richer, Natalie Imbruglia. That kinda sound. And because of this, it ties in with the album theme and also the cover art; capturing Crystal Kay at a specific moment in time. A reflection of the songs Crystal was listening to. So the decision to lean into pop feels like one that may have been strategic from a marketing perspective, because R&B wasn’t a hugely profitable genre in Japan at this point. But it also folds into a creative choice, and it’s one that pays off - setting a precedent for not only releases that would come much further down the line, but where J-R&B artists would end up shifting their sounds too. For better and for worse.

Album review: Crystal Kay - 637 -Always & Forever- | Random J Pop

As good as 637 -Always and Forever- is, it does sow some of the seeds as to why Crystal didn’t blow up earlier on as she deserved to. Nothing about this album is Japanese except for the language that the majority of the songs are sung in. There is a completely western approach to the production, the arrangements, the songwriting and Crystal’s singing style. Whilst sonically there are parallels between 637 -Always and Forever- and the likes of Hikaru Utada’s First Love; First Love still had the gambit of featuring songs which followed the Japanese archetype. 637 -Always and Forever- features no such song. Every single song on this album sounds like it’s from the US or the UK, which may have been a barrier for audiences who saw Crystal and thought that she was a foreigner anyway. Because there was no hiding the hair texture and that skin tone back then. The quality of the music here is good. But as we all know, that’s not always enough and isn’t always the determining factor of success that many of us feel that it should be. And this is a shame. Crystal delivered an album that not only felt age appropriate, but also grown and mature. And one that flowed nicely from start to finish and really exuded a sense of who she was musically, whilst leaving you wholly intrigued as to where she could and would go next.

A massive part of the charm of 637 -Always and Forever- is the way in which it has aged. Crystal’s voice even at this early stage has the qualities fans adore, but she’s far off from the vocalist she would go on to become. Every song sounds very late 90s / the year 2000. There are interludes which feature Crystal just hanging out doing teenage girl shit. This album is a time capsule, which is what makes it such a fun album to go back to. Crystal just being who she was at this particular point in her life, and walking us through it via song.


■ Girl’s Night
■ Ex-Boyfriend 🏆
■ Curious 🔥
■ He Will Be Mine 🔥
■ Another Best Thing
■ Guardian Angel 🔥
■ Honey Glue
■ Couldn’t Care Less
■ Lost Child (Original Version)