Single Review: Crystal Kay - That Girl

A vinyl of Crystal Kay’s single “That Girl” on a comic style illustrated backdrop.  The cover art features an illustration of Crystal Kay, wearing gold hoop earrings, a black fur jacket and white shades, whilst holding a glass of champagne.

It’s nice to FINALLY have a single from Crystal Kay which feels and sounds like the Crystal Kay from the days during which I had gotten into her music. I know this is an old ass thing to say. And it also implies that an artist cannot change their sound. But those of you who have been fans of Crystal from the early 2000s and feel similarly about the direction (or lack thereof) in which Crystal’s music has been freefalling for the past decade, will probably feel a similar sense of ‘Oh, thank FUCK we’re kinda back on track’ upon hearing “That Girl”.

Whilst “Gimme Some”, “No Pressure” and “Love Me” were not bad songs, they didn’t really have the energy or vibe that I usually associate with Crystal Kay’s music and neither were they particularly great songs. Where-as “That Girl” made me go ‘Oh, this sounds Crystal as fuck’ and ‘I actually like this’.

Crystal Kay should be able to play around with her sound and experiment with it. But the problem with Crystal’s sound over the past decade is that there’s been so little intent with it. Crystal Kay’s sound being so dusty and directionless has felt like record label interference to make her music as generic as possible in order to make it appeal to as many people as possible - as though Crystal Kay’s earlier material didn’t have the same appeal and did not yield hits. But the most tragic thing about Crystal’s music, is that it feels like she is being bounced around from sound to sound, with no regard for the type of artist and singer that she is, that she wants to be, or the legacy of music she had created for the first 8 years of her career.

Crystal Kay HAS a sound. And yet nobody in Crystal’s team seems to be pointing her towards trying to evolve this sound, pick it apart or play with it. There has instead been this complete disregard for it, which makes no sense to me for an artist who became famous and successful largely because of that sound. And this may seem crazy for me to say in the wake of Beyoncé having released a dance album and possibly about to release a country album. But the thing with Beyoncé, is that she hit a point where she not only owned the shit out of her sound for two decades, but she became the sound and a genre unto herself. So no matter what type of ‘genre’ Beyoncé does, it’s gonna be Beyoncé as hell by default. Crystal was SO close to hitting this point. But then everything went sideways with Spin the Music and it’s never really gotten back on track since.

Crystal’s tenth studio album Vivid was a massive turning point in the wrong lane for her, setting off what has been a chain of questionable decisions in regards to the music she’s put out ever since. It has been unfortunate to sit and watch Crystal’s team learn all of the wrong lessons from how poorly Vivid performed commercially. The problem with Vivid was never the sound or Crystal leaning too pop. Vivid showed that Crystal has a style and a vibe which can translate into straight dance and pop music. After all, it’s not like Crystal hadn’t done this before with 4Real. The problem with Vivid was never the sound. It was that the album was not promoted. But it’s easier to tell an artist to just change the types of music they do, than it is to accept that a record label, a marketing team and a PR team didn’t do their jobs. But that’s a whole other post.

Girl. Fire the whole management and marketing team.

A screenshot of the lyric video for Crystal Kay’s “That Girl”, which features the cover artwork for the song, cropped and placed in comic book style panels.
Crystal Kay - That Girl | Universal Music

Ever since Vivid, Crystal Kay’s music has been in a state of identity crisis. We’ve endured a decade of really middling releases from Crystal, with the occasional gem. So it’s great to hear something from her which cashes in on the sound that she was known for after years of seemingly abandoning it, throwing back to a partnership that many fans still look back on fondly. Teaming up with ☆Taku Takahashi of M-Flo was a great choice, given that he was one of the producers who helped shape Crystal’s sound in the earlier days. The nostalgia play is a reliable one and exactly what Crystal needs right now. And it’s a good narrative to kick off 2024, given that it’s the year of her 25th anniversary. And ☆Taku Takahashi seems to be having a bit of a resurgence himself, having produced a couple of songs for Faky, one of the seventy-two Exile Tribe groups and a remix of Hikaru Utada’s “Gold ~Mata au hi Made~”.

“That Girl” doesn’t reinvent any wheels or even show a new side to Crystal, but I think that’s fine given where her career is right now and what the state of her music has been for the past ten years. Although, I do think the song is perhaps a little too safe. I do think more could have been done to achieve a balance of pushing Crystal in a slightly new direction without rocking the safety boat too much. But I also think more could have been done to really hone in on what made Crystal Kay’s songs so fun and unique, even at a time when everybody was trying to do the same thing that she was doing.

Crystal’s vocals were a big part of her songs and what truly set them apart. She sang in a way nobody else in J-pop did. And the blend of R&B vocal arrangements over J-pop leaning R&B created this really cool sound. But over the years, that’s been massively stripped away and it’s barely present on “That Girl”. I say barely, because when you listen to the A Capella version of the song, it’s there. But the music and the mixing buries so much of her background vocals. Therefore, as a result, Crystal doesn’t take up space on the song the way I felt she used to and her vocal stylings don’t punch through as much, especially when it comes to the chorus and most definitely on the bridge section, which is so anticlimactic and flat.

A huge characteristic of Crystal’s music for me had always been the vocal production. Her vocals were arranged to be super present on songs, in a way that they became part of the music - just as Janet Jackson and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis approached her background vocals. Crystal would always give you a really nice blend of harmonies on a hook which added this layer of richness. Whereas now, she doesn’t and the choruses don’t really pop on songs the way they used to. She also sounds pretty flat. Not the way in which she’s singing, but how her vocals are mixed down, which leads into the next problem I have with this song. The mixing.

Something I think people overlook a lot with club style music is how well it is mixed. People think that loudness is a characteristic of club music, when it isn’t. Club music is intended to be played loud, but the song still needs to be mixed so that it sounds good when it’s played loud. The whole ‘club music’ and ‘loudness’ discourse is one which was had over Ariana Grande’s remix of “Yes, And?” which features Mariah Carey, and it’s steeped in misunderstanding, but that’s a whole other conversation I’ll have in my review of that song.

A good club record should still have a balanced mix. It shouldn’t be a wall of compressed and flattened sound. This is what “That Girl” sounds like to me. And it doesn’t do Crystal nor the Jersey beat influenced sound any justice. Jersey beat as a sound is bass heavy. Sometimes as a stylistic choice, the bass is distorted to sound like it’s being played too loud. Yet there is still a crispness and sharpness to the sound, which “That Girl” lacks, because both the music and the vocals sound like they’re sitting in the same range, so there’s no space and no balance. This does Crystal and ☆Taku Takahashi’s production a disservice. Because the music to “That Girl” is actually fire. And there are some cool things Crystal is doing with the vocal arrangements. But you’re only able to appreciate these things when you listen to the instrumental and the A Capella. Neither shines on when they’re together on the main mix of the song. I didn’t care much for Crystal’s performance or the music until I heard the instrumental and A Capella. 

A screenshot of the lyric video for Crystal Kay’s “That Girl”, which features the cover artwork for the song. The artwork is completley desaturated into black and white, with the exception of the ‘Crystal Kay’ earring, which remains in colour.
Crystal Kay - That Girl | Universal Music

Whilst “That Girl” doesn’t really push Crystal’s sound forward, it works because it’s just a good song. It’s not a great song. And I do wish a bit more was given when it came to the production (some variety), the mixing (less flatness in the sound), the vocal production (bigger vocals, more ad-libs and harmonies) and something which honours Crystal’s recent releases to help tie them into her narrative in a positive way (her rapping on “That Girl” woulda been great, especially as she had rapped on the songs she did on M-Flo anyway).

I do think the evolution from here though is for Crystal and her team to really tap into her old sound, but find ways to add twists to it. “That Girl” had the right idea with the Jersey beat influence. And whilst I would have liked this to have been pushed more, I still like that the song feels like an interpretation of Jersey beat through ☆Taku Takahashi and Crystal Kay. And I think this is a great place for the both of them, because they both became popular through their own takes and interpretations of hip-hop and R&B.

In an age where extended mixes and remixes are popular again, it’d actually be great to see ☆Taku Takahashi release different versions of “That Girl”. Maybe a dance mix where there is a full on Jersey beat break or a version of the song with Verbal on it. Maybe both. Or for Crystal Kay to throwback to the age of remixes featuring whole new compositions. It would be a cool, low risk way for her to play with new things that she might consider for future songs and albums. “That Girl” is a good starting point for Crystal to re-build.