BY Aaron Wu

Extravagant, confident and empowering. Rina Sawayama’s take on 2000’s era pop brims with personality to deliver one of the most compelling albums in recent years.

Today’s streaming era dictates pop songs be short and catchy to see success in the charts. Yet for every ‘Dance Monkey’ and ‘Old Town Road’, we have albums such as Lorde’s Melodrama or Charli XCX’s Charli which maintain staying power years beyond their initial release. These are artists who strive beyond infectious hooks and melodies to deliver their own nuanced takes on familiar subject matter, or redefine what the genre can offer sonically.

Joining this hall of fame is now Rina Sawayama’s debut self-titled album Sawayama. Not only is it instantly addictive and memorable through the Japanese British singer’s strong charisma and fascinating sound choices, it also stands to maintain its longevity by painting a deeply personal collection of struggles regarding family, identity, racism, capitalist culture and self-acceptance.

The album begins with ‘Dynasty’, sure to be an amazing concert opener through its extravagant arrangement of luxurious strings, bells and head-banging guitar riffs. Yet for all the song's grandeur, it sets the emotional tone for Rina’s anguished vocals regarding her broken familial relationships (“Fighting about money and this infidelity”) . It’s really hard not to feel some emotional response as she elegantly describes familial conflict as an aspect of her identity she has inherited no less than her parent’s genes (“I’m a dynasty / The pain in my vein is hereditary”). Overall, it’s incredibly evocative, especially towards the conclusion when Rina harmonises over a distorted guitar solo like some form of liberating cry.

Following 'Dynasty', is one of the most catchy and infectious songs on the album ‘XS’, as Rina transitions to tackling the addictive nature of capitalism. A repetitive and catchy chorus (“a little bit more”) sees Rina mocking our enslavement to the pursuit of material gain, while frantic acoustic guitar strums mixed with burst of chaotic guitar stabs invoke a sense of anxiety as somewhat of a warning against such overindulgence. This is made all the more clear in the music video featuring Rina as a slave to some big conglomerate, exploited for consumption. Yet how she manages to make this all sound like such a bop is beyond me.

Then there’s the liberating ‘STFU’, which sees Rina let loose to what may as well be a metal song: a suitable medium as she angerly rants about the casual racism she experiences as an Asian in a western country. From playful pleads of “Have you ever thought about taping your big mouth shut?”, to her deranged laugh and high pitched wails and chants of “That feeling, eating at my chest / Rips me open, rips me open”, it’s a joy to listen to as Rina takes on an almost maniacal persona.

Then we switch tone yet again to the confident and sassy ‘Comme Des Garçons’ which is somehow even more catchy than ‘XS’. Its sleek disco instrumental, meaty bassline and expansive reverb imbue Rina with the energy needed to satirise how masculinity portrays confidence. From her playful delivery of comical lines such as “Excuse my ego, can't go incognito” to “Virgil, Ross, Nicola / Elevate your vision when you put me on the cover”, you can tell she had a lot of fun making a song that will for sure be on repeat for a while.

You may have noticed Sawayama switches between genres and ideas at a breakneck pace, and the middle portion is no different. The glitch and trap inspired ‘Akasaka Sad’ sees Rina aching over a lack of a sense of belonging in a foreign country, whilst ‘Paradisin’ makes me feel like I’m in a video game arcade hearing Rina retell nostalgic tales of her childhood. ‘Love me 4 Me’ and ‘Bad Friend’ represent your more typical pop songs covering rebellious mischief with friends, getting drunk, and self-acceptance. However, this is all familiar territory, and I much preferred the energy and distinct sound of the previous tracks.

The momentum however is restored through the album’s last tracks. ‘Tokyo Love Hotel’ has a retro, city-pop vibe that makes you feel like a tourist in Japan. Yet ironically Rina uses this to critique how foreigners can have a surface level obsession with Japan that disregards its culture and people (think people getting kanji tattoos which often contain grammatical errors to look cool). ‘Chosen Family’ is an evocative ballad which sees Rina find solace within the LGBTQ community. Finally, there’s the epic closure ‘Snakeskin’. It surprised me through its homage to the iconic Final Fantasy victory fanfare in its main melody, before surprising me again when the beat transitioned into an underground dance floor groove. It’s a perfect allegory for not only the twists and turns the album takes sonically, but also, the narrative as a whole with Rina chanting to “rip, rip, rip” her “snakeskin”, representative of the personal struggles Rina has now metaphorically ‘shed’ for our listening enjoyment and hopefully part ways from.

The album can feel chaotic and messy for sure; when you have each song bouncing between so many different ideas and genres, any sense of consistency can be lost. I largely adore Clarence Clarity’s production (and all the other producers involved) which succeeds in capturing Rina’s personality through an experimental mix of heavy metal, bubbly city-pop and future bass. But when you have so many different sounds and instruments bombarding you, there is the potential to sound overproduced, and the mix can sound crowded and muddy at times.

Yet honestly, I have very little to fault in what might be one of the best pop albums this year (one of the songs is region locked though, come on its 2020). It’s wildly infectious and brimming with emotion thanks to Rina’s incredibly charismatic vocals, matched with fantastic production which constantly surprises and wows at every turn. Yet beyond being an absolute joy to listen to sonically, Rina presents a perspective in pop mostly unheard, as a captivating self-portrait into being an Asian immigrant in a western country.

Sawayama can be jarring at first, quirky at times, but please; it deserves a listen. It’s refreshing to hear an album embrace its individuality without compromise, and Rina deserves more recognition then what she currently gets.

You can listen to 'Sawayama' here:

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