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Rina Sawayama is her own savior on her fierce debut, ‘SAWAYAMA’

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Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA

At one point in SAWAYAMA, Japanese-British pop star Rina Sawayama’s debut album, the early 00s pop atmosphere of the album transforms into something completely different. Suddenly, it sounds like you’re being transported into a completely new place–out of the studio and into a stadium where devoted stans are cheering Rina’s name over and over again. It sounds like a scene that’s taken from a musical film where the main protagonist has overcome all of the hardships that have come their way, allowing them to finally take on the spotlight for themselves (think A Star is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, or even A Lizzie McGuire Movie). As Sawayama commands that limelight over a passionate arena of fans, she sounds right at home. “Who’s gonna save you now?” she sings triumphantly, over full cheers and a raucous backing band. This is the moment where Rina, despite everything, has finally won. No matter what anyone might say, she’s the one who has emerged victorious.

That’s the way that one should think about Sawayama’s fiercely groundbreaking pop debut, SAWAYAMA. Together with longtime collaborator and producer Clarence Clarity, Sawayama’s debut is quite unlike that of any other pop artist working in the same realm right now. Sporting an eclectic mix of pop production from the early aughts (Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera), waves of crashing nu-metal, straight-up rock, and twisting, futuristic beats, it’s an album that could quite easily be described as both crushingly modern and surprisingly reminiscent. On Sawayama’s RINA EP which was released back in 2017, she had already proved that she could tap into pop nostalgia with ease. Now, she’s made it her own and added to the mix, making the style completely her own.

On the two most standout songs on the album, “XS” and “STFU!,” that marriage of melding genres is the most apparent. Thrashing, abrasive nu-metal guitars come crashing into otherwise pop-laden tracks, creating a head-spinning combination that works unbelievably well. Add to that the heavy in-your-face messages of each (“XS” tackles the shallowness of the capitalist system and “STFU!” unleashes an underlying rage against all dissidents), and Sawayama is able to channel that ferocity with full force. Album opener “Dynasty” starts off slow but pops off with a stadium guitar solo that would make rockist in you cry tears of joy. “Who’s Gonne Save U Now?,” the aforementioned stadium song, is a victory lap for this brash addition to the pop canon. Squelching beats dominate the narrative on “Akasaka Sad,” taking the idea of a pop song to new heights. 

On other parts of the album, Sawayama chooses to delve into more traditional pop territory that doesn’t push new boundaries but still remains pleasant in their own ways. “Comme Des Garçon (Like the Boys)” finds Sawayama singing over a warped downtempo beat that seems primed to soundtrack a high profile fashion show. “Bad Friend” and “Chosen Family,” the album’s two most sentimentally sappy songs, don’t dive into mind-bending territory the way that the other songs on the album do, but still wield catchy pop hooks that still remain touching. “Love Me 4 Me,” which once again dips into busy Brtiney-reminiscent pop territory, soars with a heartwarming message about self-love. 

But perhaps one of the most interesting parts of SAWAYAMA is how it’s an album that dares to tackle far-reaching topics ranging from capitalism, sexism, queer identity, belonging, and family. A large portion of the songs are directly linked to Sawayama’s personal experiences, tying an emotional weight to the songs that she’s singing. “Paradisin’,” a song laden with an arcade-like atmosphere, serves as a theme song for the musician’s own rebellious teenage years. “Bad Friend” recounts her feelings and memories with a once-close friend that she’s now grown apart from. “Tokyo Love Hotel” and “Akasaka Sad,” both songs about Japan, deal with Sawayama’s conflicted feelings about being both a stranger and a defender of a place that she can’t really call home. “Snakeskin,” the albums writhing closer, interpolates the Final Fantasy VII Victory Fanfare theme while adding a soundbite of the singer’s own mother to close out the album. Unlike most pop albums that try to capture a broad experience, Sawayama is uncharacteristically close to heart, confronting lived-through experiences despite existing in the pop realm. She isn’t afraid to tell her own story to the world.

So when Sawayama sings the title lyric for “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?,” a redemption song that she’s dedicated to “the people in [her] life that [she] couldn’t change for the better,” it feels like this is the happy ending–the biggest middle finger to anyone out there who has ever doubted her. She’s here, she’s hip, and she’s thriving. Sawayama, with all of its stylish complexion, unmistakably marks only the beginning of the artist’s reign.

SAWAYAMA is out now via Dirty Hit. Press photos by Hendrik Schneider.

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Li-Wei Chu

Music and film lover from California.

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