Album Review: Crystal Kay - 4Real

Album Review: Crystal Kay - 4Real | Random J Pop

Crystal Kay’s fourth studio album 4Real is a strange album, because I feel that it’s one that gets lost or forgotten in Crystal’s discography. This is me making a whole ass generalisation on how I feel about this album. But y’all let me know if you feel the same. I regard myself as a CK fan, yet even I forget about 4Real. Whenever I play the likes of “Candy” or “Kataomoi”, I will play them off of The Best of Crystal Kay, because I regularly forget what album they’re from.

I can’t quite put my finger on why I 4Real just doesn’t hold in my memory, but I’mma try to. There are songs on this album that just plain do not fit. “Nice & Slow”, I’m Not Alone” and “Over the Rainbow”. Chile. Now, I like “Nice & Slow”. It’s my jam. But as was a theme with Crystal’s earlier releases, Crystal was too damn young to be talkin’ about getting anything nice and slow other than bus rides to school. And the full title of this song which isn’t printed on the CD is “Nice & Slow (Justa Little to the Left)”. Excuse me!? Ma’am. This is a First Kitchen, and you are 17 years old. I like “I’m Not Alone”, which features a songwriting credit from Keri Hilson years before we’d be introduced to her via “The Way I Are”, “Knock You Down” and Britney’s “Gimme More”. But both of these songs sound a tad dated, which is bizarre given that “What Time Is it?”, “Candy” and “Kataomoi” all sound so fresh, refined and timeless. So it seems strange to me that we have “Nice & Slow” and “I’m Not Alone”, not exhibiting the execution of the other songs. 4Real also feels like it wants to be this wholly uptempo affair, which is where 4Real shines. So plonking these slow / mid-tempo songs smack 3 tracks into the album drop the energy of the album as a whole. And it does it again towards the end with the ballad “Lead me to the End” and the Japanese jazz café cover of “Over the Rainbow”.

The sequencing of this album is a complete mess, but it’s more than this. Something about how 4Real was put together just feels off, and I feel it so clearly when I listen to it from top to bottom.

Whilst there may (or may not) have been issues behind the scenes in terms of how this album came together, the one thing that comes through in this album is that Crystal owns the shit out of R&B and has a team around her that truly gets it. Almost Seventeen established a structure which worked for Crystal and 4Real hones the absolute shit out of it. 4Real showcased how earnest Crystal and her team were when it came to doing R&B and their approach to it. I’m gonna go with my gut on the assumption that the aforementioned songs “Nice & Slow” and “I’m Not Alone” were sat on somebody’s floppy disc years before Crystal recorded 4Real, and that she may have even recorded them for an earlier album.

As the likes of T.Kura and Michico had done on Almost Seventeen with “Girl U love”. and “Girl’s Night” on 637 -Always & Forever-, there is no trend chasing with their contributions here. “What Time Is It?” feels almost Mariah Carey-esque. It doesn’t sound anything like a song like “Honey”, and yet it reminds me of it. Strange, I know. All of the R&B songs here are just feel good, well produced R&B songs helmed by folk who know the genre, respect it and avoid the pitfalls and clichés which were fucking up everybody else who was trying to do R&B at the time, unless they had the Hikaru Utada and Toshiba budget to hire Rodney Jerkins.

4Real also features a more of a Hip-Hop edge than any of Crystal’s albums either side of it, because of her growing affiliation with M-Flo; with DJ Taku producing Almost Seventeen’s “Hard to Say” and Verbal featuring on 637 -Always & Forever-’s “Ex-Boyfriend”, which led to the Crystal collaborating with M-Flo proper for the songs “I Like It” and “REEEWIND!”. The DJ Taku produced “Kataomoi” is one of the best songs on this album, and it’s wild to me that this wasn’t made a single. This song right here is what made me even bother entertaining Japanese Rap, because of the vibe and energy that 51-Goichi, Arkitec and Coyass bring to the song. Coyass sounds like Gollum on the beat, but it’s everything.

Crystal Kay working Hip-Hop so casually is another instance of Crystal doing something in Japanese music and doing it well before anybody else did, but not getting the credit she deserves for doing so. So few pop and R&B artists in Japan were putting rappers on songs. And if they were, it was usually just Verbal of M-Flo, and it’d be for remixes. Never for singles or albums. Meanwhile Crystal has the most thuggy, miscellaneous rappers on songs for singles, in music videos and on her albums. And she’s also doing the one thing I adore when a singer has a rapper on their song, which is ad-libbing around and over the raps to give a full sense of collaboration and awareness of the rap. This also shows just how in tune Crystal Kay and her team really was with popular R&B in the US, because putting rappers on songs and ad-libbing around them is straight out of the Mariah Carey playbook. Another artist who is also is never given enough credit for popularising what is now a widespread trend across all genres of music.

It’s a shame that Hip-Hop didn’t form the complete basis of 4Real. I get the feeling that this may have been the plan at some point, based on songs such as “Kataomoi”, “What Time Is It?”, "I Like It" and the Clipse sampling “Candy”; but it wasn’t carried through for whatever reason.

Album Review: Crystal Kay - 4Real | Random J Pop

4 Real represents the moment in Crystal’s career from where Sony would choose to pivot, and create this disconnect between her image and the music, even though they had everything they needed to make it work here. On the surface her R&B credibility is being cashed in earnest. But there is a clear attempt at moving Crystal into a more pop space. This isn’t a bad thing. It's smart. It makes sense for Crystal Kay to go the Janet Jackson pop route, which she’d follow through to the full extent by working with Janet’s producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis on future albums. The likes of “Ex Boyfriend Part II” aka the pre-cursor to “One” and “Can’t Be Stopped” are both really good songs which sit alongside “Kataomoi”, “What Time Is It?” and “Candy” perfectly. But these songs collectively only make up two thirds of the album. The other third feels like something wholly different, which is why 4Real feels so strange as an album. “Nice & Slow” and “I’m Not Alone” sound old. The Brandy “Love Just Wouldn’t Count Me Out”-sounding-ass “Lead Me to the End” is just a ballad thrown in for the sake of including a ballad. And a cover of “Over the Rainbow”!? Why?

The one constant on this album is Crystal’s vocals. Whilst a couple of these songs do sound like they were recorded during sessions for Almost Seventeen, there is a smoothness to Crystal’s vocals which holds for the majority of 4Real. You can also hear that Crystal is starting to feel confident enough in her voice to go a little off script with her ad-libs; which is most noticeable on "Kataomoi”. Crystal just glides over songs on this album in a way she hadn’t on anything before. “Can’t Be Stopped” is an absolute joy to listen to because of how free Crystal sounds on it. This is the album where you really start to get that sense of ‘OH, not just any bitch in J-Pop could sing these songs how Crystal does’. There is a noticeable jump in the quality of Crystal’s voice and her approach to singing, which isn’t common in J-Pop. Crystal was really working on her voice in-between albums and it shows.

Album Review: Crystal Kay - 4Real | Random J Pop

There are some fantastic songs on this album, and aside from the cover of “Over the Rainbow”, nothing on it is bad. But 4Real doesn’t feel like it was put together to be a body of work. It just doesn’t. And it’s a shame, because it really undersells how good some of the songs on this album are. “Kataomoi”, “What Time Is It?”, “Candy” and “Can’t Be Stopped” are CK classics. And yet the album they feature on is one of the most forgettable albums in Crystal’s discography. 4Real not marking any commercial milestone as the albums either side of it did (Almost Seventeen and Crystal Style both sold more copies than 4Real and charted at number 2 on the Oricon) also didn’t help it.

4Real is the one album in Crystal Kay’s discography which is the least definable in terms of its sound and the songs that make it up, which is why it’s such a forgettable album to me. And this isn’t because of the quality of the songs. It’s because of the selection. 4Real just doesn’t feel like a wholly considered album. It makes me wonder if it was intended to be an EP, but was then fashioned into an album. Or if its English language counterpart Natural was intended to be a bigger deal and the sole album, but shit fell through and an album had to be scrambled together. But then again, Natural also doesn’t feel like a complete album. So, who the fuck knows?!

4Real features some great songs. But as a body of work? It’s a no from me dawg. It’s nothing that revised tracklist won’t fix though, which is what makes this album even worse. It wouldn’t have taken much for it to be a standout album.

VERDICT: Lil' Gollum

■ Nice & Slow
■ What Time Is It? 🔥
■ Candy 🔥
■ Can’t Be Stopped 🔥
■ Kataomoi 🏆