Sawayama album review: Rina Sawayama steps up to the plate

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Image belongs to Rina Sawayama/Dirty Hit

Rina Sawayama has slowly carved out her niche within pop music circles, initially making waves with a unique blend of 90s R&B and pop, manifested most prominently on the breakthrough single “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome”. Since then, Sawayama has built upon the groundwork laid on that release with a full EP Rina and some standalone singles, throughout which she collaborated closely with English R&B singer Clarence Clarity. Sawayama also found herself becoming a rising superstar in the fashion world as well, modelling for names like Versace and being signed to world-famous agency Elite Model Management. It’s no surprise that Sawayama already has a legion of fans backing her rise, as an outspoken member of the LGBT community as well as one of the few promising pop stars of Asian descent within the English language pop world, she’s a voice that has long been missing within pop music. She’s also gone from funding her releases to finally landing a record deal with Dirty Hit, serving as labelmate to bands like The 1975 and Wolf Alice. SAWAYAMA is Rina Sawayama’s hard-earned chance to show the world what she’s got up her sleeve and establish herself fully as a name to remember.

“Dynasty” sees Sawayama kick off the album with a bang, as it marries symphonic metal along the lines of Evanescence with her innate pop sensibilities. She expresses her desire to stop the abuse and pain of her family from being passed down through generations, maintaining that these issues can’t be fully obscured from the public eye. It’s a personal and strong statement to begin the album with, but she sings passionately and the production is more than powerful enough to support her message. She continues the metal influence on “XS”, which opts to blend it with an early 00s pop flavor, sounding like an edgier take on the gaudier R&B-tinged pop sound popularized by Janet Jackson and Jennifer Lopez. The throwback sound is extremely effective as Sawayama turns the song into a satirical ode to the kind of materialism and capitalism glorified by 2000s culture, shrugging off the negative effects both have had on the modern world with resignation and shamelessly confessing her desire for luxury. She pushes the metal influence to its extreme and most prominent on “STFU!”, as she releases her pent-up frustration and anger at the intolerance and hate she has faced to date. She expresses her desire for her detractors to shut up, but pulls back from the sheer aggression of the heavy production, instead choosing to deliver this specific desire with a mockingly pleasant persona and making it land harder than she would’ve by simply riding the track’s inherent brashness. She drops the metal influence on “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys)” where she pivots to a dancier and more disco-influenced sound, as she addresses her insecurities and focuses on manufacturing her self-confidence by taking cues from society’s masculinity driven standards for carrying one’s self. Sawayama name-checks fashion designers and houses in the post-choruses, drawing upon her experiences as a model as a way of reminding herself why she should be confident in her success. She returns to a bouncier form of the 00s pop-R&B sound on “Akasaka Sad”, depicting her struggles with sadness and depression, finding that even returning to her roots in Japan is not enough to ease her upset. She sings in both English and Japanese, reconciling her upbringing in England with that of her Japanese heritage and worrying that she will not find happiness in either land. Despite the subject matter being melancholic, Sawayama and producer Clarity find a way to make the syncopated beat fun whilst keeping the mood intact.

“Paradisin’” is an unabashedly pop track built on 8-bit synths as if Sawayama were in an arcade, which perfectly encapsulates her desire to enjoy her childhood and depicting her mother’s invasive attempts to curtail her behavior. She aims for a euphoric and nostalgic vibe and nails it, incorporating the joyous feel of 80s music and modernizing it by fusing it with a 2000s pop-rock sound, even throwing in a saxophone solo and a key change to this end. She keeps the nostalgic factor on “Love Me 4 Me”, but instead pulls from the new jack swing sound popularized by 80s-90s pop mainstay Janet Jackson. Sawayama concludes that she has to accept herself fully before she can love someone else. Her ad-libs are sensual and intimate, riffing on her desire to feel sexy and desirable within the relationship. “Bad Friend” slows the tempo down slightly so Sawayama can reflect on a past friendship and how she contributed to its deterioration. A mild vocoder effect on her voice underscores the vulnerability of the chorus before she finds herself backed by a full-scale choir during the bridge. It’s a heartfelt electropop lament ripped right out of the pages of Robyn’s playbook, though Sawayama makes it her own. On “Fuck This World”, though it serves as an interlude, she expresses her disappointment in the state of the world but eventually realizes that she has to do her best to make a change. Sonically, it’s a good segue from the previous track into the next and Sawayama even weaves in references to past songs “Take Me As I Am” and “10–20–40” as she closes out the song.

“Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” opens with Sawayama’s name being chanted by a crowd that welcomes her to the figurative stage as she delivers a well-intentioned but blunt kiss-off to an ex who sabotaged their past relationship, asking them who will stop them from their self-destructive behavior yet still earnestly wishing them the best. She takes her cues from arena rock sounding like an amped-up version of P!nk’s Missundaztood era and the crowd from earlier sticks throughout the song to establish the atmosphere of the song. This is Sawayama’s strongest vocal performance on the album as she growls and belts out a searing high note, before quickly heading into another key change. She swivels to synthpop on “Tokyo Love Hotel” and addresses the fetishization of Tokyo by foreigners, displaying her pride for the city and her Japanese heritage and utilizing personification to lay claim to the city. The production is reminiscent of Carly Rae Jepsen’s work on Emotion, although the subject matter personalizes the song to Sawayama’s and there are enough modern flourishes in the production to differentiate the two, and Sawayama’s vocal performance here sounds more involved as the desperation in her voice complements her pleas to the city itself, beseeching it to give her all its love. She slows things down on the electronically infused ballad “Chosen Family”, in which she affirms to the queer loved ones in her life that they are her family even though they are not biologically related, directly referencing LGBTQ+ terminology in an earnest love song to her fellow members of the community. Sawayama takes care to make her lyricism compassionate and mindful of the different diaspora of the community, singing purposefully in a modern and much-needed unique adaptation of the torch song. She closes out the album with “Snakeskin”, which begins with her near-operatic vocals but quickly devolves into a dubstep-influenced affair of stuttered vocals and a drop after the chorus that sounds like a rattlesnake shaking its rattle. It’s a cinematic production that wouldn’t sound out of place coming from K-pop girl group Blackpink, though Sawayama is more than up to the task of handling the track on her own.

In summation, SAWAYAMA is a stunning debut album from a rising name in pop music that should rightfully cement her as someone to watch. Sawayama has a hold on her artistic identity and knows how to handle complex themes, channeling them into infectious and affecting songs. As a whole, the album rifles through the sonics of past trends in music, mainly those of 90s and 00s R&B and pop music, and filters them with a modern sheen to deliver tunes that feel refreshing yet flaunt an awareness of its predecessors. Sawayama also proves herself with great vocal performances throughout the album, more so on this record than her preceding EP. If there is any fault here, it’s that Sawayama’s genre-hopping makes the album sound somewhat incohesive, though it does help show off the singer’s versatility as a result. SAWAYAMA is a great statement for any pop star to make as a debut album, and it will be fascinating to see where the singer goes next.

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