April 20, 2020 | By

SAWAYAMA' is Rina Sawayama's hammer down, her breakthrough into ...


The British-Japanese Pop Artist Returns for a Triumphant Debut Record


SAWAYAMA is the debut studio album via Dirty Hit, of singer/songwriter/model/etc. Rina Sawayama. Born in Japan and raised in England in the mid 90s, much of her earlier life was spent between London and Tokyo. In the early 2000s, Rina attended Cambridge University where she started a musical group with Theo Ellis of Wolf Alice, subsequently going on to begin a solo career which saw its first significant release in 2017’s RINA mini-album.

On her previous project, Rina navigated themes of life and love in the information age as well as delving into different aspects of her own personality. Production from the likes of Clarence Clarity and Hoost made for an eclectic blend of whacked out pop trends to compliment Rina’s very candid songwriting style. The result was a brief, but extremely impressive extended play which promised great things to come.

On her prober debut, Rina once again brought Clarity (among several other producers) into the fold to help produce an even more kaleidoscopic sonic palette for a project nearly twice the length of its predecessor. Consistent with the title change from her first to last name, SAWAYAMA sees Rina go from writing about topics regarding her personality, to themes that more so tie into what makes up her identity. Various songs in the tracklist make reference to her identification as british-japanese, a member of the LGBTQ community and a millenial.

Kicking the album off with an indirect nod to the it’s title, is a song that explicitly references Rina’s heritage. “Dynasty” expectedly explores themes of generational suffering brought about by increasingly decrepit values. Rina sings a yearnful chorus here about hoping to be able to ‘break the chain’ and create her own legacy. Clarity’s arena-friendly pop rock instrumental on this track fittingly evokes an Aguilerian sense of perseverance, setting a perfect stage for the narrative of this and subsequent moments on the record (like the pseudo-live recording of ‘Who’s Gonna Save U Now?’ towards the end, which is complete with recordings screaming fans).

Following this is the trifecta of singles initially released in anticipation of the record. “XS” (the first of these songs) is a pop/r&b ode to a hunger for more that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on top of the pop charts in 2003, with the exception of metal inspired breakdowns at a few key moments in the tune’s progression. While the avant-rock influences may be a turnoff for casual pop listeners, it adds a welcome hint of aggression that implies an underlying aggression to the album’s tone.

In the case of “STFU!” (the following single), aggressive metal is the main aesthetic driving force. Clarity’s production here is composed of a fairly cheeky blend of nu-metal and j-pop that come together to create a flash-in-the-pan product worth more than the sum of its parts. Rina uses this opportunity to lash out at ignorami over the countless microaggressions she’s abided by.

Needless to say, the concept goes over quite well, with the juxtaposition of Rina’s sentiments being mirrored by a similar trend in the instrumental. While this and a couple of other tracks (such as “F**k This World” and album-closing “Snakeskin”) take on a more confrontational tone than any of the other songs, they don’t come together with the rest of the narrative all that harmoniously. Regardless, they do make up a few of the record’s more stylistically experimental moments, showcasing yet another engaging side of Rina.

“Comme des Garçons” comes next, along with a supremely danceable beat and tongue-in-cheek appropriation of male dominance, as Rina claims to be confident ‘like the boys’. Sharing this sentiment of positive self-image, albeit in a much less ironic fashion, is the dreamy new-jack-swing inspired “Love Me 4 Me” (incidentally sharing a name with a 2002 Christina Aguilera deep cut). Another callback to a bygone pop trend can be found in the juvenile “Paradisin’”, which utilizes a primarily chiptune palette for Rina’s balladic love letter to her youthful days of sneaking out to meet her friends at the arcade.

Rina accentuates the loving nostalgia factor to her deep fondness for her place of birth on “Tokyo Love Hotel”, a straightforward synth-pop tune that sees her compare her intimate relationship with the city to those of tourists who come to simply check into love hotels. Her choice to have the album’s only real love song be about a place she adores rather than a person, is an inspired one if anything. Especially curious given her conflicting feelings about Tokyo expressed on the experimentally composed “Akasaka Sad”.

“Chosen Family” and “Bad Friend” show two sides of Rina’s perceptions of her own platonic relationships. On “Bad Friend”, Rina laments the relationships she’s failed to make work in a chorus made heavy both by emotion and vocal manipulation à la Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” or a number of Laurie Anderson works. Later in the tracklist, she expresses her gratitude for her “Chosen Family”, as she lends a true anthem to one of the most important institutions in the LGBTQ community.

So… did Rina Sawayama make an album? Yes.

Did she make a great album? Yes.

In the three years or so that it presumably took her to make this record, Rina clearly put a high standard of care and consideration into every aspect of it. Each song feels holistically passionate and personal, conveying their messages in ways that are truly original and compelling. It is unmistakably the complete artistic culmination of its creator’s career thus far. SAWAYAMA serves as a near-perfect, heartfelt tribute to the nostalgia of a bygone era of popular culture that can be appreciated by an entire generation; as well as a worthy continuation of pop music in its own right.

In lieu of any kind of numerical rating of this album, I will simply say that I would highly recommend this album to any and everyone.


Listen To SAWAYAMA on Spotify or Apple Music



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Category: Reviews