Album Review: Crystal Kay - Almost Seventeen

Album Review: Crystal Kay - Almost Seventeen | Random J Pop

Where-as Crystal Kay’s second studio album 637 -Always & Forever- felt like a time capsule that tried to capture the vibe of R&B in the 2000s, Almost Seventeen takes a very different approach. One which went completely against what everybody else in Japan was doing at the time when it came to R&B. Whilst everybody was clamouring to mimic what was happening in the US, Crystal Kay decided to jump back into the 90s - which lets face it, was the golden era for R&B, from which many of the foundations of the genre for the next 40 years would stem. Delivering solid Japanese R&B which felt credible and could compete with what was being cranked out in the US felt like a tall order. And yet here was Crystal Kay. 16 years old and doing it. Not just for one or two songs, but bitch, an entire album.

The aim with Almost Seventeen wasn't to make Crystal grown. It wasn't to mould her into some other pop 'n' R&B chick. It seemed to be ‘Let’s just make some good R&B / pop music, and not think too much about what they be doin' over in America’, which resulted in an album that felt effortless and free from agendas, at a time when so many artists and producers were trying to be somebody else. No song on Almost Seventeen captures this better than “Girl U Love”, which is a J-R&B classic. I won’t go on about how good this song is, because I wrote an entire love letter to it back in 2017. But “Girl U Love” does a great job of really setting the tone not so much for the album, but for Crystal Kay, and what she can deliver when she’s in her element, and in the midst of songwriters and producers who understand her and the assignment.

Almost Seventeen didn’t just veer off from what everybody else was doing by looking back instead of just looking over, but also in its choice to be a wholly mid-tempo album. Almost Seventeen opens up with “Hard to Say” which will get the pussies popping and the titties shaking. But from track 2 onwards, Almost Seventeen is a pretty chill affair. Now that I think about it, even “Hard to Say” is by no means an explosive banger of a song. It's pretty smooth. But Almost Seventeen also features a surprising amount of midtempos and ballads.

When it came to R&B in Japan, everybody went straight for uptempo cuts that could have a mean set of 8 counts in a music video and would spin in the clubs in Roppongi. Nobody was really trying to do R&B midtempos or ballads. This is where Sony started to fuck up with Crystal, because none of these songs were singles, when they absolutely should have been. Not only because they were (still are) good songs, but because a ballad could have done great things for Crystal Kay in the long run; who by this point was already building a reputation for being the R&B chick, but would never be known for ballads. And y'all. Ballads are a crucial thing for female artists in Japan. You HAVE to have ballads in your single discography, and this isn’t something that Crystal would rectify until later far later in her career when the damage was already done, and with a bunch of unmemorable ballads at that. “Shooting Star Dust” and “Song for You” not being singles was a... [Puts on Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman voice] Big mistake. Big. Huge. As was not releasing the cover of Honeyz's "Love of a Lifetime", to let those video game bitches know that CK can give the midtempo R&B serve in English too, in case they need a singer to record a RPG theme song in both English and Japanese.

Album Review: Crystal Kay - Almost Seventeen | Random J Pop

When you jump from C.L.L. Crystal Lover Light to 637 -Always & Forever to Almost Seventeen you can hear a huge shift in Crystal Kay. Not just with her vocal growth, but the energy she brings to songs. You can hear that Crystal is developing a sense of self and things she can do with her voice to realise that. Crystal is giving smoother runs, better technique and centering herself in songs differently. Crystal’s approach to how she sings on songs also shows her maturity from the days of C.L.L. Crystal Lover Light, where Crystal had this wide-eyed, boisterous energy. Here Crystal shows restraint and poise - mastering the art of doing a lot without doing much and never giving more than is necessary.

Something which would become a signature for Crystal Kay was the delicateness of her voice, and that all started here on Almost Seventeen, where Crystal really started smoothing out the edges of her vocals. Delicateness felt like a very unique thing to hear on 90s R&B for a minute, because so much of R&B in the 90s was about being unafraid to show aggression, passion and pain, along with sensuality; which was partly because of the influence of swing. But with Crystal being a Japanese R&B artist, she’s not in a vacuum and still ends up adhering to the J-Pop trend at the time which favoured a more delicate and high sitting vocal.

Another thing that Crystal would go on to be known for vocally is her vocal arrangements, which true to US R&B, were richly layered and focused on the utilisation of harmonies in ways that Japanese music didn’t. This gave Crystal’s songs a very unique flavour amongst Japanese music, but also added an air of sophistication. Because not many 16 year old girls were giving you 5 track layered vocals and harmonies with such precision and attention to detail.

The only issue with Crystal’s vocals on this album is the inconsistency, which I can only assume is as a result of the songs being recorded over a period of time as Crystal’s voice and style of singing went through changes. There are a couple of songs on Almost Seventeen that sound like they were recorded during the sessions for 637 -Always & Forever-. “Missin’ U Baby” is one example. And it’s highly noticeable sat between “Hard to Say” and “Girl U Love”, both of which show a clear and obvious growth in Crystal’s vocals. However, this isn’t a Crystal Kay specific issue, but one which is prevalent in Japanese music; where artists will release a brand single not long after an album is released, which sounds like it belongs on said album, but will end up on the next. Then by the time they record their next album (which can be years away), their voice has changed, and then you end up with these vocal inconsistencies as a result of an album featuring singles recorded at different times, and album cuts all recorded at the same time. If this is indeed the case here, it’s a shame Crystal didn’t re-record these songs.

Album Review: Crystal Kay - Almost Seventeen | Random J Pop

Almost Seventeen starts really strong. But it starts to lose a lot of steam midway through, and then the album never manages to recover. This is not a reflection of the quality of the songs. There is only one song on this album that I think is terrible, and that is “Feel the Same?”, which falls into all of the R&B trappings that many other J-artists fell into, and that Almost Seventeen went 12 tracks avoiding. “Feel the Same?” features some Japanese ODB wannabe, and is just generally awful. It causes the album to end in the worst possible way. Somebody should have pressed delete on this track before it went into mastering. It’s just terrible. I don’t care if this shit is a bonus track, the album didn’t need it.

The raggedy way in which Almost Seventeen ends draws attention to the one thing that fucks this album up, and that is the sequencing. Almost Seventeen does the far-too-common thing of front loading the album with the fun songs, and then shunting all of the midtempos and ballads into the second half. And whilst none of these songs are bad, it does turn the album into a bit of a snooze fest when they’re all sequenced back to back. It’s a shame, because I think this is where the album will lose a lot of people, which will result in them not paying attention and turning the album off, thereby missing out on gems such as “A Song for You” and “Think of U” and a bop like "Attitude".

Another problem with some of the songs on this album is that they’re a little too long for how repetitive they are. “Shooting Star Dust” and “You’re My Fate” both could have had a minute shaved off of them and been far tighter songs as a result. The arrangements don’t change, don’t switch up and Crystal doesn’t give anything special in the later parts of the songs to warrant either of them being a minute longer than they needed to be.

Album Review: Crystal Kay - Almost Seventeen | Random J Pop

Crystal Kay doesn’t get enough credit for the part in which she played in J-R&B being popularised in Japan. She was one of the few artists who brought an authenticity to the sound. Not just because she was Black, but because of her voice and how she approached singing. So many Japanese producers did not get that just giving an R&B sounding song to an artist is only part of it. An artist has to be able to bring R&B to the table themselves. The vocal is what needs to help sell the song, and on Almost Seventeen, Crystal sells every single one. Even on that trash “Feel the Same?”, Crystal still sells it like the mortgage payment on her mother’s house depends on it.

At this stage in her career, Crystal’s voice wasn’t anywhere near what we know it to be now, but she still had a really nice voice that was perfectly suited to R&B. You could tell that she listened to it and studied it, and that she's so comfortable in that space, that she's able to put her own spins and takes on things to create her own brand of R&B.

There’s also an understanding and love that main contributors to the album, production and songwriting duo T. Kura and Michico have of R&B, which makes their offerings feel like they’re genuine fans of R&B and aren’t treating it like a fad. But they also understand that they are in the presence of an artist who truly gets R&B and IS R&B in a way that nobody else in Japan at the time was, which is why the T. Kura and Michico joints hit so different. And why to this day, they are two of the best talents in Japanese R&B, and their songs with Crystal Kay rank so highly in the genre.

Album Review: Crystal Kay - Almost Seventeen | Random J Pop

Almost Seventeen was the album when the Crystal Kay that we would go on to adore from Call Me Miss… and beyond truly emerged. So much of what Crystal would go on to do and be known for started with Almost Seventeen. You listen to “Girl U Love” and you can hear the intricate vocal arrangements that would set a precedent on songs like “Together”, “Hero”, “I Wanna Be” and “Itoshiihito”. You listen to “Attitude” and you can hear the influence of Janet Jackson, the origins of “Shining”, and the manifestation of Crystal working with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis on “Kirakuni” and “I Can’t Wait”. You listen to “Move on” and you can hear the early workings of songs like “Dream World” and “Girl Move On”. You listen to “Hard to Say” and hear what a great fit Crystal Kay is with rap, which would mark the start of a long collaborative career with M-Flo. Despite being Crystal Kay’s third studio album, Almost Seventeen is truly Crystal Kay’s origin story. And not only did Crystal Kay write much of her future with this album, but she set a standard and a precedent in Japanese R&B that only she would be able to match and raise the bar of.

Verdict: Almost bald

■ Hard to Say 🔥
■ Missin’ U Baby 🔥
■ Girl U Love 🏆
■ Shooting Star Dust 🔥
■ Boyfriend (What Makes Me Fall In Love)
■ Hide'n'Seek 🔥
■ You're My Fate
■ Move on
■ A Song For You
■ Think of U 🔥