One of the advantages of getting heavily into J-Pop is that, almost unconsciously, I've started to appreciate and enjoy musical genres I once scorned. When I was a teenager, anything remotely pop or commercial was anathema to me, and R&B was the worst of the worst. R&B was irritating screaming melismatic female voices, moronic beats, grating lyrics. R&B was something listened to by people I held in contempt. If you said your favorite music was R&B, I probably wouldn't like much else about you, either, and if you had of given me Crystal Kay's 2006 second albumCall Me Miss as recently as five years ago, I probably would have spat in your face.
What a surprise now that I'm giving this album a high rating, since with a few (very small) changes, Call Me Miss could easily be an American R&B album. As much as 40% of it is in straight English (and I don't mean standard J-Pop English, which consists of repeating a single word or phrase interspersed with mostly Japanese), and the production is more than amenable to the likes of Timbaland or the Neptunes.
Case in point: the single 'Kirakuni'. Apart from that single word, the entire song is in English, and I wouldn't bat an eye if I heard it on U.S. commercial radio. Five years ago, I would have scoffed before changing the channel - "What is this, the new Destiny's Child or some shit?" (Never mind that 'Kirakuni' is a great song, one of the highlights on a generally strong album). This feel is extended to the music itself, highlighting its crossover appeal (not that I actually expect a Japanese artist will ever get that big in the U.S., Puffy be damned).
Kay herself comes from a background that might support this: she has an African-American father and a Korean-Japanese mother, and was born in Okinawa, an island typically associated with both pop stars and international and American influence. On the strictly Japanese front, Utada Hikaru seems to be the biggest influence, especially the old-style Utada of First Love and Distance, with 'Koi ni ochitara' being a prime example. If somebody had told me this song was accidentally left off Distance I would have believed them - it's like an Utada track that never was, vocal inflections and all. Opener 'Baby Girl' is crunk-style R&B, of the kind Koda Kumi wishes she could pull off. Elsewhere, 'Happy Life' is more upbeat J-pop, with a slightly squelchy but still pounding synth beat. 'Kiss (Orchestra Version)' lives up to its parenthesis; it's a classy prom-ballad with an understated let-go-of-your-partner-slowly fade out. 'Kitto' is a nice ballad, but goes into Mariah Carey overdrive a bit much towards the end - Kay might have the technical vocal power for the histrionics, but restraint is key.
The best song, though, is the driving 'Together', with its thudding drumwork, urgent vocals, and subtle stabs of flute. This is the one that most screams 'Crystal Kay' - i.e., the only one that definitely sounds like her and no one else, and points most insistently to even more riveting future material. Overall, the production could do with a little more variety - she slips into Utada mode a bit too often, and the beats can occasionally get monotonous - but give CK time. This girl is worth keeping your eye on - she hasn't quite distinguished herself from the pack yet, but give her another album or two and I'm sure the whole country will be seeing her face everywhere. What with her and Sifow, the quality of newer artists is intimidating. If this continues, the veterans are going to have to watch their backs (this means ten-year-plus dinosaurs like MoMusu, Ayu, and Namie Amuro - the latter practically a grandmother in the hyperspeed timewarp of the industry). If my prediction that the hour of Koda Kumi is at its close, Crystal Kay (and my future girlfriend Ms. Fujita of course) is my choice to step up.