Rina Sawayama has made her mark on music through the release of her debut album SAWAYAMA. Rina is a singer-songwriter who was born in Japan and grew up in London, England. Her debut album blends sounds of pop past, future and present in a masterful way. SAWAYAMA is an album about family, but definitely not in the conventional terms. Every song paints a specific picture, using skillful production and sharp lyrics to tell some of the most interesting stories in today’s pop music world.
The album starts out with one of the most intense tracks, which sets the tone for the rest of the story. “Dynasty” is an epic opener, with triumphant lyrics and a heavy rock influence. The next track is “XS,” a single that was released pre-album. At its core, “XS” is reminiscent of early 2000s pop, but with a SAWAYAMA twist. Harsh metal-rock strums litter the track at the beginning, pre-chorus and during the chorus. “XS” is an amazing pop song, because it’s fun, but also complex.
“STFU” continues this masterful mix of heavy metal sounds and traditional bubblegum pop. Parts of the song sound like intense rock and roll and parts sound like an early 2000s coming-of-age soundtrack. The next track, “Comme Des Garcons (Like The Boys),” brings a new sound to SAWAYAMA. This track is smoother than any before it, with perfectly cocky lyrics, like “Excuse my ego, can’t go incognito // Every time you see me, it’s like winning big in Reno.” This track has many references to cities that influence Rina’s music, like London and Meguro, a city in Japan.
Family comes into play in “Akasaka Sad,” which is one of the most sonically and lyrically intriguing tracks on the album. The lyrical content deals with Rina’s feelings of displacement and connection to her parents as a Japanese immigrant. The track is filled with emotional punch, although it has an upbeat and danceable beat. The next track, “Paradisn’,” is a complete retreat from the seriousness of “Akasaka Sad.” It’s a sugary-sweet song that sounds straight out of a video game, accompanied by a beautiful sax during the second half. In “Love Me 4 Me,” Rina uses a ’90s R&B sound to empower listeners. It’s a sincere and groovy track about self-love and vulnerability.
The eighth track on SAWAYAMA easily stands out as the strongest, most universally loved song on the album. “Bad Friend” uses specific details and perfectly placed vocoder effects to transport listeners to an exact moment in time. Rina sings about the crazy nights she experienced in the summer of 2012, referencing fellow pop queen Carly Rae Jepsen and Tokyo, Japan. By listening to “Bad Friend,” you feel as though you are completely immersed in the story. It’s a brutally honest admission of guilt, and by far the strongest track on the album.
The “F**ck This World” interlude does its job of summing up the emotions explored so far in the album and expressing Rina’s frustration. This anger is used to its fullest potential in the following track, “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” The use of electric guitar and cheering crowd effects makes this track an anthemic victory, much like the opening track, “Dynasty.” In this track, Rina shows off her vocal abilities, which are extremely reminiscent of pop icon Christina Aguilera.
The last three tracks bring SAWAYAMA to a close by highlighting Rina’s family and roots. “Tokyo Love Hotel” is another nod to early 2000s pop sounds and an ode to Japan. It’s a song about gratitude and sincerity, which you can hear in her voice as she sings, “I guess this is just another song ‘bout Tokyo.” The second to last track, “Chosen Family,” has the most straightforward message out of any song on the album. Rina sings about how people who share her pain and emotions are family, even if they don’t share a gene pool. It’s undeniably cheesy, but because of the beautiful vocals and genuine nature of the track, it works. The last track, “Snakeskin,” is the most interesting track from a production standpoint. It samples Beethoven; the victory fanfare music from the video game, “Final Fantasy IX;” and uses a clip of Rina’s mother’s voice at the end. It incorporates every aspect of the album into one sound, bringing the album to a dramatic close.
Rina Sawayama’s debut album, SAWAYAMA, is unlike any pop music being made right now. She doesn’t shy away from using her family roots as inspiration, and blends sounds that are so different that it will surprise you how well they work together. SAWAYAMA tells a detailed story of Rina’s life and personality, inviting us into Rina’s world and understanding her experience.
Featured Image: Dirty Hit Records