Album review: Crystal Kay - Call me Miss...

Album review: Crystal Kay - Call me Miss... | Random J Pop

Crystal Kay's sixth studio album Call me Miss... is a monumental album is her career. It was not only the foundation for its follow-up which would become Crystal's first ever number 1 album, but it was the solidification of a sound that she had been cultivating over the 7 years leading up to its release. This was the album where you could indefinitely say 'Crystal has a sound'. One which would be imprinted on every album which would follow.

As the title suggests, this is Crystal Kay's coming of age record. A declaration of her entering womanhood, marked by a shift in her image and sound. The album cover also highlighted her bi-raciality, with Crystal appearing much darker than she is in actuality; completely contrasting with the CD's featuring the faces of her 'pure' Japanese peers. It would however be the last time this visual stunt would ever get pulled, as every album which would come after would feature a shot of Crystal with the brightness whacked all the way up. The sums of parts along with the music which proposed a newly reawakened Crystal Kay who was a little bit surer of herself than she was before.

What makes this album work is its subtlety in everything it does. There aren't any huge anthems or songs that instantly smack you in-between the eyes. Not because the songs are bad, but because that's not the intent of any of the songs here.

Over the course of her career Crystal Kay, would follow in the footsteps of her peers and those that came before her by riding the J-Pop / R&B wave with varying degrees of success. The emulation of US R&B in Japan was very real, and no matter who did it the end result always sounded like a really bad knock-off. Some of Crystal's earlier material was not exempt from this. But Call me Miss... manages to get the balance right between showcasing an awareness of a popularised sound, without sounding like a rip-off. There are one or two occasions where producers try a little too hard. Album opener "Baby girl" has its producer talking some shit at the start of the song like anybody knows who the hell he his. Homie, you are not Timbaland. "This joint is for my ladies. We bring some West coast up in here" in full blown Engrish. He almost kills the song before it starts. But these moments across the album are extremely far and between.

If the objective for Call me Miss... was to just produce a nice set of songs which aren't trend or time stamped, then it succeeds.

The album draws influences from a range of genres and periods. "Hero" is very much shaped by the likes of Ne-Yo's "So sick" and "Sexy love" which popularised a minimalist sound of twinkling melodies offset by heavy hitting drums and 808s. But then the bouncy off-kilter "Happy life" sounds like something from Michael Jackson in the late 80s / early 90s. And around this you have a bunch of songs which combine eras, genres, their influences of which are difficult to pinpoint outright. I honestly don't know what you'd call a song like "KTK". The whole thing sounds like it's scored for a film or a TV show. It's a brilliantly produced song which was the deciding factor for me buying this album before I'd even finished listening to it. But you can't categorise it. "Together" could probably get lumped under R&B because of its drums and general vibe, but if somebody were to question this and say 'No, that's not R&B' I wouldn't contest. Call me miss... marked the beginning of a phase in Crystal's career where she would keep R&B at the centre of her sound, but would wrap other styles and sounds around it and she pretty much nails it here.

Call me miss... is a quietly confident album. There's a comfort that Crystal has on every single track. She makes no effort to really push her voice, but this is something that can only be said in retrospect of hearing her later albums, where Crystal's vocals would become stronger as a result of live performances, confidence and age. But there's a comfort zone that Crystal operates in with her vocals here which shows how much she knows her own voice, even if she hasn't yet realised the full potential of it. Crystal isn't trying to be extra. She's just doing what she knows and really honing it. She was one of the few artists in J-Pop who genuinely seemed to give a damn about the arrangements of her vocals. Every single song features harmonies. There's no studio session singer filling here. Crystal is doing it all. Every hook sounds like it's being sung by a trio of Crystal's. There's an intricacy and respect to the way Crystal approaches vocals on this album that's hard to miss. Something she achieves without incessant screaming, running rampant with ad-libs and melismatic notes every other 10 beats in a song.

The production across Call me miss... feels extremely rich despite how light it is for the most part. There is zero insistence on making a song dense with sounds, just because. What is in the mix is what's necessary and not a damn thing more. Every song feels as though it has a nice amount of breathing room, with a large space left open for Crystal's vocals. There is also a fair amount of live instrumentation here which gives the songs an unplugged feel, along with a couple of touches and flourishes which aren't commonplace in pop or R&B. The saxophone solo on "Telepathy", the acoustic guitar, drums, organs and orchestrated strings on the genre fluid "KTK". Even a song like "I know" which is 2-step features a piano and a string section to elevate it from being just a 2-step song. Call me miss... doesn't fall victim to being an album of its time, because its sound is not period exclusive nor definitive. This album was also an early adopter of Japanese A&R's pairing Japanese acts with US producers, as Janet Jackson's producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis wrote and produced the song "Kirakuni".

There isn't a bad song on this album. How can you hate on the album that set the frame work for the perfection that was its follow-up All yours!? The weakest moment is probably the album opener "Baby girl". Not because it's a bad song, but because it's neither here nor there. On an album full of songs which evoke a particular mood and feature such on point production, "Baby girl" feels very unrefined and loose. I was dubious of this track from the spoken word in the intro, but I checked out when that unnecessary ass key change came in out of nowhere. "Two as one" gets a mention as an album moment that may make you wince, purely because of the featured vocals which come courtesy of the singing duo Chemistry. On the hook, they sound great. During the verses, they sound ragged as fuck. Crystal is serving smooth 'n' sweet vocals and then these guys come in with their crusty lungs. Still, it's such a catchy song that their hoarse and tuneless vocals doesn't ruin the song. Thankfully the version on this album is the Crystal dominant version, as there is an alternative cut of the song which features Chemistry more prominently. You'd have to be a hardcore fan of theirs to want that shit though.

Crystal had shown promise in her earlier years with songs like "Lost child" and "Girl U love", which were far beyond her years at the ages of which she released them. But Call me miss... is the album where everything seemed to have clicked for her. Call me miss... is one of Crystal's strongest releases and I deem it a part of the holy trinity of her discography, alongside its follow up All yours and her emancipation / rebirth album Vivid.

RATING: 8.5 / 10

Album highlights:
■ Koi ni ochitara
■ Hero
■ Telepathy
■ KTK
■ Together ★ J's fave
■ Kitto
■ Two as one
■ Happy life
■ Namida ga afurete mo

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