The ways Crystal Kay influenced and impacted J-R&B AND Japanese music that not enough people talk about

A contact sheet of Crystal Kay, featuring shots of her from the music video for “Bye My Darling!”.

Here’s the thing about Crystal Kay. She may not be as big as some of the other J-pop girls. The usual suspects. Y’all know who I’m on about. But Crystal Kay has had a big impact on J-R&B and J-Pop. FAR more than she has ever been given credit for.

Now. Disclaimer time. In an age where everybody on the Internet wants to play games of ‘Yeah, but-’, ‘No, but-’ and ‘What about-’. This piece is not me saying that Crystal Kay is the only influence in Japanese R&B. It’s also not about me trying to erase the impacts and influences of others. Yes. I am a fan of Crystal Kay. But even I can / do acknowledge that there were a bunch of different artists, talents and situations which contributed to the success of J-R&B. But this is not a piece about all of those different people and things, although it does touch on a few them.

My viewpoint in regard to Crystal Kay’s place in Japanese music, is that I have always felt that her impact and contributions to it have long been either downplayed or straight-up unacknowledged; simply because she didn’t have a widely publicised success story, a string of number 1 albums, and didn’t reach the level of success of that names who are associated with Japanese music as a whole managed to reach. And there’s also the Black of it all, but we’ll get into that.

So please bear in mind: This is about how CRYSTAL KAY influenced and impacted J-R&B and a lil’ bit of J-Pop in the process. Not every Tomoko, Dick and Hari.

So, let’s get into it.

The way Crystal Kay carried the torch for J-R&B
Japanese R&B had existed before Crystal Kay came along, and had seen success in Japan prior to her. Double are widely cited as the act responsible for bringing US R&B into Japan, and it’s fair to see why. Double’s debut album released in 1999 and charted at number 2 on the Oricon, selling over 600,000 copies; which was HUGE at a time when Tetsuya Komuro’s brand of J-pop was still reigning on the charts and J-rock was still bussin’ alongside it.

Now, what we are not gonna do is diminish the impact that Double had on J-R&B, or rewrite history. BUT. What I do want to acknowledge here, is how the story of Japanese R&B is always framed as ‘Double is responsible for Crystal Kay, the J-R&B turn of Namie and all of the other J-R&B acts’, which I don’t think is entirely true. Especially given that in the case of Crystal Kay, she was releasing music in 1999 with a US R&B sound and released her debut album in March of 2000. And then there was Hikaru Utada, who had released the album Precious in 1998, before their official debut, which was wholly R&B; the sound of which was carried over to their debut album First Love, which was released in 1999.

If Double were the ones to show that Japanese R&B could be viable for an act for whom its their only style of music, then Crystal Kay was the acts to show the younger audiences that Japanese R&B could be diversified and presented in a pop friendly package - which is something which became a formula for many of the girls at the time. Even with Hikaru Utada being as big as they were circa 2000, they were still largely seen as J-pop and not widely considered part of the J-R&B discussion. Even off the back of songs such as “Automatic”, “Can You Keep a Secret?” and “Time Limit”, which were absolutely R&B in style. I mean, shit. You don’t even need to cherry pick songs. R&B was the core of both of their first two albums First Love and Distance.

As far as I’m concerned, you cannot have a discussion about Japanese R&B without Crystal Kay. She is synonymous with the genre. Not only was she crucial to it, but I would go as far to say that it became what it did partly because of her. She was a part of the first wave of acts to release J-R&B music, even if she wasn’t one of the most successful to do it at the time.

Race is something we have to address, which was probably a Double *Turns and looks into the camera* edged sword for Crystal when it came to J-R&B. Because whilst her being Black added legitimacy to what she was doing within the scene, it probably also made some audiences reject her and the impact she was making. The erasure of the impact of Black people by non Black folk is a story as old as time and one which is unfortunately still the case to this day.

The way Crystal Kay showed the J-Pop girls how to do it
Crystal Kay’s arrival on the J-music scene coincided with R&B starting to make bigger impacts on the charts in North America in the early 2000s. R&B was no stranger to chart success in the US. But it started to cross over massively in the late 90s / early 2000s, due to the intersection of R&B, Hip-Hop and pop. You had acts who were able to straddle the pop and R&B charts (i.e Usher, Destiny’s Child and Mariah Carey), R&B acts putting out songs with pop sensibilities because of producers such as Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins (i.e Janet Jackson, Brandy). And then you had the likes of Kandi Burruss and She’kspere becoming a pop / R&B go to, thanks to the huge success of TLC’s “No Scrubs”. And then on top of this you had Hip-Hop acts featuring on some of these songs. AND THEN you had pop acts trying to get in on R&B too, by working with these same producers. We had NSync cutting songs with Kandi and She’kspere. The Spice Girls having a bulk of their album be produced by Rodney Jerkins. Britney Spears working with The Neptunes. And Mariah just casually passing through with songs like “Heartbreaker”, which was pop and R&B, and also had Jay-Z on it - just to remind hoes that she’s always been on this shit.

This seems like I’ve gone WAY off topic. But stay with me. It’s all connected. And Crystal Kay folds into this.

A black and white photo of Verbal of M-Flo and Crystal Kay, in Crystal’s dressing room, for her 20th anniversary gig.
Verbal of M-Flo & Crystal Kay

R&B and Black culture impacts everything. So naturally, this period of R&B, Hip-Hop and pop all winning simultaneously in the US, started to slowly happen in Japan. Crystal Kay played a big part in this, because it was during this period that she experienced a huge career upswing and started to see her singles and albums charting in the top 10 of the Oricon charts, which meant people knew her and what she was doing, and other acts and record labels began paying attention to her. Thus establishing a template for the J-Pop girls who wanted to dabble with J-R&B.

The R&B, Hip-Hop and pop combo would also play a massive part in the relationship that Crystal Kay would form with M-Flo. M-Flo’s work with Crystal over the years would go on to shape M-Flo’s whole model and what they’d become known for. Collaborating with women in the J-R&B space and platforming them pretty much became their brand, along with their hybrid sound of Hip-Hop and pop. Hip-Pop if you will, to coin Namie Amuro’s album title for the phrase.

Not only was Crystal Kay releasing J-R&B songs with a pop sensibility, but she was doing so with an image which didn’t skew too far one way or the other. Her sound and look could still be categorised as J-R&B, but also be filed under J-Pop. And this is an important thing, which was the difference between success and failure for some of those who came after. Those who said ‘Fuck it’ and went the whole Double route with their look and sound is why their careers fell off after one or two albums. Double’s success was kinda anomalous, and they learned that the hard way.

The way Crystal Kay helped expand a roster of Japanese producers
J-R&B didn’t have this sizable roster of well known / go to producers for a while. There was no Japanese equivalent of a Jermaine Dupri, a Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins or a Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Which is precisely why in the case of Hikaru Utada, to get their R&B jams for Distance, they quite literally had to go to Rodney Jerkins and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. But this was a situation unique to Hikaru Utada; between being signed to a label who was willing to invest whatever it would take to recreate something which could be as successful as First Love, and Hikaru being fluent in English, which would make the creative process easier.

M-Flo became a popular go-to given the brand they had built within the Japanese Hip-Hop scene, but they were still more Hip-Hop than R&B. And no matter which way you cut it, Verbal nor DJ Taku were not J-R&B producers; at least not in the beginning. But their work with Crystal Kay turned things around massively for them, and put DJ Taku in the mix as a producer outside of M-Flo and a remixesr for other acts. 

Ryosuke Imai was one of the few known J-R&B producers in the late 90s, thanks to his work on Double’s debut album. Another was T. Kura of Giant Swing Productions and his songwriting partner Michico, but their output was largely for T. Kura’s own Giant Swing releases (featuring a roster of artists he had signed or was affiliated with), miscellaneous artists who signed indie deals, and Black British artists such as Elisha La'Verne and Jaki Graham who had signed deals with Avex. I know y’all may have questions about this, but don’t ask me them right now. This shit is a whole ‘nother post.

So, Crystal Kay comes along. She’s J-R&B out the gate. And not only is she signed to a big-ass major label like Sony, but her songs are charting on the Oricon. They’re charting low, but they’re still charting. And because of this lack of a large pool of known J-R&B producers (even in the wake of Double’s success), Crystal’s team had to go Indiana Jones in the deepest of regions to find producers. Working with new discoveries, up and comers and unknown talent wasn’t much of a risk back then because…
a) Crystal was still a new artist herself
b) Working with new, unestablished talent meant low costs for the record label

Crystal’s presence on the scene created a spark amongst these up and coming Japanese R&B producers to start getting placements with her. And it was less about her music charting and more about her. Because when “Girl’s Night” came around, people were seeing the vision. She’s super young. Sounds great on the beat. She’s a vibe. And she Black too - which probably added ‘legitimacy’ to her doing J-R&B. Crystal wasn’t just a J-pop girl trying to sing R&B. She is a Japanese girl ACTUALLY singing R&B. It wasn’t an act. It wasn’t cosplay. It wasn’t a phase. This is who Crystal is. So naturally, those dudes in their bedrooms making beats want to work with her, and some of them eventually do.

A black and white photo of Crystal Kay recording in a studio.
Crystal Kay

From the years of 2001 and 2005 we started to see a roster of Japanese R&B producers form and also grow, thanks in part to Crystal Kay. Akira, Icedown, STY, all becoming sought after names off the back of their work with her. And after years of having to pull songs from a pool of US, UK and European songwriters, we also start to see more J-R&B songs being helmed by Japanese songwriters; Tiger, Emi K. Lynn, Yoshika, Emi Hinouchi, H.U.B., Emyli, Hiromi, Tiger, Minami. And most of them worked with Crystal Kay at some point and came up because of their work with her. And let us also acknowledge that all of these songwriters are women.

And thanks to their years of work with Crystal Kay across multiple albums, T. Kura and Michico had also experienced their biggest career upswing. That was until somebody else came along.

The way Crystal Kay was probably, likely, possibly, inadvertently responsible for Namie’s J-R&B efforts catching on
As with *puts on a Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf voice* the story of J-R&B, Double is credited solely for Namie Amuro’s pivot to R&B. And whilst I do believe that Double absolutely played a part in this, I also think there is a bit more to it. Especially when it comes to the point in Namie’s career when J-R&B actually started working for her.

Namie’s R&B efforts early on were quite pig-headed for the lack of a better word. By the time Style came along, Namie had fully sacked Tetsuya Komuro’s fried and dried wig, and said ‘Fuck the pop shit. I wanna be a hood bitch.’ And she did not care one bit about alienating her fans. But by the time we got Queen of Hip-Pop, things changed. And I think Crystal Kay may have had something to do with this.

Walk with me for a sec.

From as early as early on as Almost Seventeen, Crystal was putting out songs which were very clearly R&B in vibe, but with a pop gloss; something that Namie would begin to adopt, which would contribute to her big comeback of 2007.

It’s not hard to imagine Namie sat at home in front of her TV, chain smoking like Tony Soprano, seeing Crystal perform “Missin’ U, Baby” on Space Shower TV and then flipping open her bejewelled keitai to text Vision Factory and tell them to find out who is responsible for the song. And the answer was Michico & T. Kura, who were like Crystal Kay’s equivalent to Janet Jackson’s Jam & Lewis. Aaliyah’s Missy & Timbaland. Brandy’s Rodney Jerkins and LaShawn Daniels. Michico & T. Kura worked on Crystal’s 2001 album 637: Always and Forever, its follow-up Almost Seventeen, 4Real in 2003, Crystal Style in 2005, All Yours in 2007 and Vivid in 2012. They go back like babies, pacifiers and Stevie Wonder’s hairline.

Michico had worked with Namie in 2003 for “Put ‘em Up”, writing the Japanese lyrics and also contributing to the vocals. For all of the drama surrounding this song, which resulted in it almost not seeing the light of day, it would quickly become a defining song on Style and a fan favourite. Michico’s touch is also what resulted in Namie deciding to even release the song. So of course Namie was gonna call a bitch back. But this time Michico brought T. Kura with her.

Following placements on Queen of Hip-Pop, T. Kura and Michico would go on to work with Namie for half of Play, including the singles “Can’t Sleep, Can’t Eat, I’m Sick” and “Funky Town”. Each of the 60s 70s 80s songs which wound up on Best Fiction. And “Copy That”, “Wild” and “First Timer” on Past<Future. A phase of Namie’s career where she became the number 1 bitch at Avex and kicked the shit out of Ayumi Hamasaki’s sales; something that nobody saw coming. I can only imagine the way Ayu’s face cracked when the weekly Avex sales fax came through.

A black and white photo of Namie Amuro and Crystal Kay, on set for the cover shoot for their song “Revolution”.
Namie Amuro & Crystal Kay

Everything would come full circle in 2015 when Crystal Kay and Namie Amuro would collaborate for the first time on “Revolution”. And Namie truly showed how down and supportive she was of Crystal Kay, by not only saying ‘yes’ to doing the song in the first place, but showing up for the music video, actually dancing in the music video, showing up for the cover shoot and also performing the song during her concerts and bringing Crystal Kay out - all things Namie rarely did for her collaborations for anybody else. Shit. She barely did any of this for her own songs at times.

We also saw this potential possible-Namie-co-sign-as-acknowledgement-of-the-impact-on-her-career back in 2008 when she did the exact same thing with Double for “Black Diamond”. On the song. In the music video. Dancing a whole routine. More than one look in the music video. Live performances. Appeared in promo shots.

I don’t think it’s a stretch that perhaps Mihico and T. Kura’s work with Crystal was something that Namie took note of. After all, it’s how artists end up working with certain producers - because they heard something they did for somebody else, and decide they want something of that for themselves.

The way Crystal Kay legitimised and gave authenticity to Japanese R&B
There was definitely a period in Japanese R&B where acts in this space were treating R&B like it was a character or a personality type. All of the tropes you can think of, they were running amok. The long nails. The oversized gold jewellery. The Kangol hats. The velour. The box braids. The afros. Some of your J-R&B and J-pop faves were looking absolutely crazy, and it was clear that none of what they were giving us was actually their style. Crystal Kay side stepped every single piece of this and presented herself as authentically her.

R&B had a look and a visual aesthetic for sure. But Crystal Kay showed that R&B was not JUST the look. If you’ve got the sound, but not the look, it’s still R&B. But if you’ve not got the sound, and only have the look, then sweetie…it’s not R&B. And some of these other acts really thought the look was enough. I get it though. It was easy to sell and package R&B this way during a time when R&B and Hip-Hop music videos were setting a trend for music videos in all music, something which is still prevalent to this day and has K-pop standing on the shoulders of it. The visual component became so paramount to the promotion of music, and for R&B and Hip-Hop it was a real wind change; because what was once deemed too ‘ghetto’ and ratchet to market, was suddenly the way everything was marketed. And because of this, I do wonder if anybody at Sony at the time ever asked her to be a little more ‘Ghetto fabulous’ or to ‘N***a it up’.

The looks game is a horribly competitive one. But what really made Crystal stand out from the crowd was her voice and how she approached her music. Crystal could ACTUALLY sing. I’d argue that out of all the J-R&B girls, that Crystal had and still has one of the best voices. Lots of other J-R&B acts then and even now sounding like they were trying to sing R&B. Where-as with Crystal Kay, it was just…how she sang. Same shit with her looks. What was a character for everybody else and something others had to try to do, ut was just innate with Crystal.

And whilst T. Kura and Michico could absolutely be dragged over how they looked and treated J-R&B and Hip-Hop at one point in their careers; there was a love, admiration and respect that they had for the genre which came through in the music they made for Crystal. This paired with Crystal Kay meant that we got early classics such as “Girl U Love”, a song that nobody else could do the way Crystal did, even at the young age of *turns and looks into the camera* almost seventeen at which she recorded it. And it was so against the grain of what the image of J-R&B was at the time, yet was the truest essence of the genre and what it should be. Tell me who in Japan is singing “My Everything” how Crystal Kay did. Crystal Kay was showing the girls in Japan how the fuck you sing Japanese R&B.

Crystal just being Crystal and her music really helped legitimate Japanese R&B for me. Whenever everybody else did it, I was like ‘Oh, that’s cool’ and it was fun for the mess that it was. But hearing how Crystal locked the sound down and did so effortlessly, not only made me take the genre seriously, but want to bother to sift through the mess for other good songs and artists in the genre.

The way Crystal Kay opened the door for Black girls in Japan
Crystal Kay being a Black girl in J-pop, signed to a major record label, touring, performing on TV shows and having these cool looking music videos would have meant the world to young Black girls in Japan, who had always thought that their skin colour or their hair texture would prevent them from being able to pursue their dream of being a pop star in Japan.

Without Crystal Kay, the likes of Emi Maria, Thelma Aoyama, Aisha and Saarah of Bananalemon would have found it harder to get a foot in the door of being a pop star in Japan, if get their foot in at all.

A black and white photo of Crystal Kay from the cover shoot of "Bye My Darling!”.
Crystal Kay

Whilst there is a lot to be said about Crystal later in her career, how much lighter she was made to look on album covers and how her hair was frequently pressed straight; there was no effort made to make Crystal look ‘less Black’ or ambiguous. A lot of this probably had to do with Hip-Hop and R&B very much being a trend in Japan at this time, where Crystal being Black was ‘cool’, versus circa 2008 when the Hip-Hop and R&B trend started to wane, which coincided with Crystal’s makeup artists using talcum powder as foundation. But, still. Regardless of trends and Crystal having a geisha beat on later album covers and not appearing on album covers at all; Crystal Kay being present and visible was representation before it became a buzzword. It was a chance for young Black Japanese girls to see themselves on TV at a time and in a country which really had no reason to entertain any of it.

As is often the case, wins for Black girls open doors for others.

We also started to see the emergence of other mixed race acts in the J-R&B space, such as Beni and May J; both of whom can pass for being ‘Japanese’. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that Crystal Kay having success as a Black Japanese girl probably gave the likes of Beni and May J a sense that for however othered they may have felt, that if Crystal could have a career with a major label in a wholly J-pop, whole fair skinned space, that they most certainly could. And now look how Crystal be friends with the both of them.

The way Crystal attracted attention from R&B fans outside of Japan
Japanese R&B in the early 2000s was a mess. It was a glorious mess. But it was a mess. I could never have introduced friends or fellow music fans to Japanese R&B as a whole during this period. But d’you know who I could and did introduce them to?

Crystal Kay.

Crystal Kay was a bridge that connected many R&B fans to J-R&B, and “Kirakuni” was probably the song that did it; between the familiarity of the Janet Jackson-esque sound, the song being mostly in English and also the music video. The fact that even now, there is still no official upload of the video on YouTube and the song still isn’t available on Spotify or YouTube Music?

Gurl, fire the whole management and marketing team.

Trying to get people who don’t really fuck with music which isn’t in English is a tall order. Or at least it was in the early 2000s. But when I introduce friends and folk to Crystal Kay, the response is always an overwhelming one. Not just because of how well produced her music is, but also because of her voice. You ain’t gotta know what a bitch is singing to know that she can sing. And if I show friends and folk a music video of Crystal, they comment on how beautiful she is.

For how good the music that others were releasing was, Crystal Kay as the total package acted as a great emissary to getting pop / R&B fans who were not into Japanese music at all into J-R&B. This made it all the more shocking when she attempted to crack the US market with such terrible songs and music videos, which were stripped of all that we knew and adored about Crystal Kay. That was an absolute mess of a situation, but I ain’t; getting into that now.

A black and white photo of a monitor displaying Crystal Kay surrounded by balloons in her music video for “One”.

It’s a damn shame that Crystal’s career fizzled out the way it did from 2012. But the legacy that she built in those first 10 years of her career was something truly special. And what a fucking time for somebody to be a pop star in Japan. Because 2000 to 2010 was when we saw J-pop become something truly monumental. It diversified in a way it hadn’t before and hasn’t done since. And it was also a period where we saw the emergence of true pop stars to rival acts in America in terms of their impact and their selling power. But because of just how much took place during this time in Japanese music history, and Crystal’s career not reaching the stratospheric heights of some of her peers, she is very often left out of conversations when it comes to her influence and impact.

The fact she not only managed to stay afloat, but actually had albums and singles go into the top 10 of the Oricon during this period, where it felt like everybody was debuting and fucking up sales, is actually insane. And the fact that Crystal is STILL here releasing music an additional 10 years on is something to celebrate. This is why I get pissed when her team isn’t doing anything to raise her up or amplify her. Because despite the legacy that Crystal built during the first 10 years of career, I still feel that she has more of it to build. But if her team isn’t going to do the work to crystallise Crystal’s future, then they should at least honour her past and do their part to remind everybody of just what Crystal had achieved. Because if they did, then perhaps more people would see the influence and impact that Crystal Kay had on Japanese music and the doors she kicked open by just simply being present in all of it.