Album Review: Crystal Kay - C.L.L. ~Crystal Lover Light

Album Review: Crystal Kay - C.L.L. ~Crystal Lover Light | Random J Pop

C.L.L ~Crystal Lover Light is the debut album of Japanese singer Crystal Kay. And whilst Crystal Kay would go on to be known for R&B in the years that followed, this wasn’t how it started out. The sound of C.L.L ~Crystal Lover Light album may end up surprising those who haven’t listened to anything of Crystal’s pre Almost Seventeen, and just assumed that THAT album was the sound and style of which Crystal rolled outta the gates with. You couldn’t be more wrong.

C.L.L ~Crystal Lover Light has R&B songs on it. Sure. But it’s not the anchoring sound of the album that it became for Crystal Kay's third album Almost Seventeen, which formed the foundation of Crystal’s sound as we would go on to know it. Even when Sony and Universal fucked it all up for a 10 year stretch and turned Crystal’s sound into some generic foolery, the CK from Almost Seventeen up to Color Change! is the sound that fans still identify with Crystal. Spin the Music? Shine? For You? We don’t know them.

Album Review: Crystal Kay - C.L.L. ~Crystal Lover Light | Random J Pop

Crystal Kay was only 13 - 14 years old when she recorded C.L.L ~Crystal Lover Light. Sometimes it shows and sometimes it doesn’t, which presents problems, and we’ll get to that. But what is quite remarkable about this album is some of the directions in which it goes, when it decides it’s not gonna do your regular teenage shit, whilst still giving you teenage shit.

The most popular song of this album “Eternal Memories” is a complete vibe, and not the entry into R&B you’d expect from a teenage girl at a time when R&B was starting to be popularised in Japan, and everybody was giving you Darkchild knock-offs and harpsichords every which way. It was a far more progressive style of R&B that Japan never really caught onto, which was still considered a niche form of R&B even in the US. But for how progressive and grown the song sounds and feels, the lyrics tow this perfect line of being age appropriate, but still hitting in a way that you can relate with it at any age. There’s a line in the song which refers to Crystal having a fight with her mother, which feels pretty typical for a teenager. But the narrative of the song as a whole is how we all keep memories and moments in our lives that we’re unable to ever let go of, which is a pretty deep thing to be singing about as a 13 - 14 year old girl, but not completely out of the ordinary. I recall how taken aback I was at that age at being able to remember specific things from earlier in my life; and how the good and bad memories would always come to me mixed together. “Eternal Memories” is a really beautiful song that I don’t think was ever given the credit that it deserved.

Then there’s “Let's Suika Dorobo” which feels like a cross between “Parallel World” from Final Fantasy XIII-2 and TLC’s “Fanmail”. “Fanmail” was a song that offered a take on what I refer to as ‘the millenium sound’ - a style of R&B that incorporated clearly digital sounds and computerised sound effects that many R&B artists were putting out at the turn of the century. The entire concept of TLC’s Fanmail album and songs like “Silly Ho”. Michael Jackson’s “Heartbreaker”. Brandy’s “What About Us?”. The Spice Girls’ “Tell Me Why”. And whilst most of these songs really show their age now and didn’t really carry forward into the future how producers Dallas Austin and Rodney Jerkins figured they would, “Let's Suika Dorobo” strangely does; being far more forward facing and a better prediction of what the future of R&B and sub-sections of it would sound like more than the song on which its foundations are built on. “Let's Suika Dorobo” sounds like something you’d find on an album from Tinashe, Kelela or Janet during her Velvet Rope phase. And the entire thing being auto-tuned fits the soundscape of today like a glove. It’s a great song that I imagine seemed strange to many back in 2000, but holds up extremely well now.

But not all songs manage to establish such a good balance, and it tends to be the more standard R&B songs that let the side down. “More Lovin’” is nice, but it’s way too grown for Crystal Kay at the age she was when she recorded it. I can’t listen to an R&B song this smooth with lyrics about touching and caressing from a 14 year old girl. I just cannot. And then there’s “Teenage Universe ~Chewing Gum Baby” which has this hot, dark beat behind it, but then a chorus which is some Tommy february6 sounding shit, talkin’ ‘bout ♫ Chew, chew, chewing gummu BABEH ♫. I’m torn, because I like both songs. But the juxtaposition? The mismatching? It’s just wow. 

Album Review: Crystal Kay - C.L.L. ~Crystal Lover Light | Random J Pop

This is a debut album. So I get there was an element of just throwing everything at the wall, seeing what sticks and trying things out. But less would have been more and made for a better album. C.L.L. ~Crystal Lover Light feels like it wanted to be 4 different albums. An R&B album, an alternative / progressive R&B album, a pop album, and a Soul / Pop album. All of these genres and sounds are connected and can certainly co-exist together. But this right here, is not how. There is a clear divide which occurs at track 9, where C.L.L. ~Crystal Lover Light becomes a different beast entirely. And just as you settle into the direction the album has taken, it ends with the song “Shadows of Desire”, which feels like a hard left turn and the most unlikely of candidates to close out the album. Everything about this song stinks of jumping on a sound and bandwagon, which feels at odds with literally every other song on this album which was making no attempt to do such things. But the turn C.L.L. ~Crystal Lover Light takes from track 9 onward is probably the most exciting part of the album for me, because it’s so unexpected, and is the stretch of the album which is the most consistent and realised.

Album Review: Crystal Kay - C.L.L. ~Crystal Lover Light | Random J Pop

Crystal Kay is known for her voice now. But, chile. Back then!? No. Her vocals on this album are raggedy and inconsistent to a point where your first and lasting impression of Crystal may not be how good a singer she is. On some songs she sounds really good, whilst on others she sounds pretty bad. But it speaks to her artistry that she is the vocalist that she is now; because there wasn’t a great deal here to signal that she would become the great singer she is now. There are moments on this album where Crystal does sound great, and she'll hit a run or a note which will make you say ‘OH SHIT’. But because of the inconsistency in Crystal’s vocals and singing ability from song to song, it’s easy to take these instances as just flukes. But I do admire the fearlessness that Crystal has on this album when it comes to singing. She wasn’t focused on technique, but just vibes and energy, which makes sense. She’s 13 years old for fucks sake. And she’s not some otherworldly, virtuosic from birth type bitch like Jazmine Sullvian, who was singing the absolute shit out of songs from Oz with a level of skill and precision that no regular child has at 11 years old. But the fearlessness in Crystal’s voice is what makes this album a joy to listen to even now, despite the vocal shortcomings. Especially as there are things Crystal does on this album that she’d never do now. That high note on “C’mon Babe”!? Gurl. Mariah heard it through the multiverse. And who in J-Pop was giving and has given this note since?

Crystal was a bad bitch in the making, and nobody knew it back then, because there was no way to know, and that’s also a big fault of this album.

Album Review: Crystal Kay - C.L.L. ~Crystal Lover Light | Random J Pop

Crystal Kay’s vocals on this album feel divisive on the whole, and go beyond just her lack of technical ability, but how her age plays into songs. Sometimes the fact that she clearly sounds like a young teenage girl adds a nice charm to the songs, such as “Today Friend the Decoration Cake Kau Kau GO”. But then you might listen to this same song on a different day and think ‘Maybe I woulda liked this song more if Crystal sang it with better technique and sounded a bit more grown’. The same goes for “Eternal Memories” and “More Lovin’”. And here-in lies which is one of the biggest issues of this album. Sometimes the material feels a little too grown and mismatched with Crystal Kay’s age. There are songs which would have worked better with an artist who was older and had greater vocal maturity - which is why for quite some time I’ve wanted Crystal to perform songs from this album, or cover and re-release a bunch of them. Crystal with her voice as it stands now (and has stood for some time) would do songs on C.L.L. ~Crystal Lover Light a great justice; delivering them how I think the writers and producers wholly intended for them to sound and be received. As much as I adore “Tsunerai Guitar”, I know Crystal Kay now would do the damn thing with this song. Crystal now would give "Rainy Blue Day" the type of soul that only a grown woman can give. “More Lovin’” would finally feel right coming from a woman who is grown and now has the tone to match the sensuality of the lyrics. "Today Friend the Decoration Cake Kau Kau GO" with a Hip-Hop edge and a verse from Verbal of M-Flo would pop off. And the tone and clarity that Crystal exhibited on her tenth studio album Vivid would add so much to “C’Mon Babe”, which in retrospect feels like a precursor to “Delicious na Kinyoubi”, as they both share quite similar vibes and Crystal sings them in similar ways.

C.L.L ~Crystal Lover Light doesn’t seem to ultimately know if it wants to highlight the charms of Crystal’s age, downplay them, or try to make Crystal appear more grown by leaning into specific sounds matched with certain elements of Crystal’s voice. There’s this constant back and forth that the album does, and I wonder if this was part of the reason why this album didn’t really catch on. If this album is wanting to be grown, but also play up that it’s from a teenage girl, then who exactly were Sony wanting this album to appeal to? Comparatively we have an album like Hikaru Utada’s First Love, which featured subject matters which felt beyond Hikaru’s years; but all in all First Love still felt like an album from a 15 year old girl. There was no sense of the producers ever trying to hide it or downplay it. Everybody seemed to be on the same page in terms of what First Love would be as an album and how it would represent Hikaru Utada. Where-as with C.L.L ~Crystal Lover Light, nobody seemed to be sure when it came to the music, despite there being a clear intent and through line with Crystal Kay's image and the aesthetic of the music videos.

Seeing as the producers of this album didn’t know what they wanted to do in regards to portraying Crystal’s age through the material any-damn-way, I don’t get why Sony didn’t just go right-on-ahead and include “Shorty and the EZ Mouse” from Bust-a-Groove. It woulda sat nicely next to a song like “C’Mon Babe”, and more people were probably aware of that song than any of the singles released off of this album, even if they didn’t know that Crystal was the one who sang it. All the more reason to have included it.

Album Review: Crystal Kay - C.L.L. ~Crystal Lover Light | Random J Pop

There’s a really clear arc across Crystal Kay’s discography which truly starts tenfold with Almost Seventeen - an album which established THE sound that Crystal would go on to ultimately be known for and is still known for. 637 -Always & Forever- is a time capsule album which feels reflective of who Crystal was and the music she was into at the time of its release, which is why it feels so separate from her discography and is a wholly overlooked album in general. And whilst it would be easy to lump C.L.L ~Crystal Lover Light with it, I feel that this album holds a lot of relevance in terms of who Crystal would go on to become, especially once she left Sony. An album that C.L.L ~Crystal Lover Light has gone on to remind me of over time is Crystal's 2012 album Vivid. The way this album embraces a bunch of different sounds and styles. The lack of caring about expectations. The fearlessness and eagerness of venturing into the unknown. And it makes sense. C.L.L ~Crystal Lover Light was Crystal Kay’s first ever album, and Vivid was Crystal Kay’s first album at a new record label after a decade of being signed to the label at which she built her career. But it’s really clear that nobody at Sony really had a clue at this point on how to market Crystal or package her, something that Vivid also suffered from. And wildly enough, C.L.L. ~Crystal Lover Light also reminds me of Shine, because of how it touches on 60s Motown, and how you can split both albums down the middle. The single choices, whilst understandable, are not reflective of this album at all. Shout outs to those of you who bought C.L.L ~Crystal Lover Light because you liked “Shadows of Desire”, just to find there’s no other song on this album like it. Sony played y’all.

C.L.L. ~Crystal Lover Light is the one album in Crystal Kay’s discography that I’d say is an acquired taste, between the sound and her vocals. It’s easy to see the album as non-essential, and I honestly wouldn’t contest though who feel this way about it. But this is a fun album which marks the beginnings of one of the best voices and talents in Japanese R&B. How can you just skip on an origin story!? In many ways this album was an unfortunate foreshadowing for Crystal’s career as a whole. Forward thinking. Overlooked. Underrated. Strangely managed. But fun at times.

Verdict: Chew, chew, chewing gummu BAYBEH

■ Eternal Memories 🔥
■ Teenage Universe ~Chewing Gum Baby
■ Let's Suika Dorobo 🔥
■ Today Friend the Decoration Cake Kau Kau GO
■ Tsurenai Guitar 🏆
■ Papa Donpi
■ Rainy Blue Day
■ C'mon Babe 🔥