Review: Rina Sawayama, ‘Sawayama’

The British-Japanese singer’s debut is a sensationally daring pop endeavour that revitalises the genre’s best traits.

Nostalgia is the most rewarding result of good pop music. It may not be the best song, but its qualities are transportive. It’s no wonder the heiresses of modern pop are drawing influences from their past contemporaries. London-bred Rina Sawayama is the latest pop figure to independently build her foundation. Aside from an 8-track released in 2017, her output has largely been on halt to gear up for this full-length debut.

Sawayama is a pop museum that boasts multiple exhibitions to showcase why it is the best pop album of 2020 (sorry, Dua Lipa).

Rina’s debut goes through all the motions in 13 tracks, banking on sharp left-turns, fantastic choice of influences and compelling subject matter. Stylistically, Sawayama explores avenues of 2000s pop, nu-metal, R&B and electronica, a bold move at the hands of producer Clarence Clarity. The myriad kicks off as early as the opening track “Dynasty”, instantly setting an engaging peak for the album. Its grand production matches the song title before shifting to epic electric guitar and booming drums.

“Dynasty” is not the album’s only exploration of nu-metal. It is immediately followed up in songs like “XS” and “STFU!”, constantly surprising listeners with sharp segues that serve a greater purpose than mere enjoyment. But the pop traits are reminiscent of 2000s stars Britney Spears (“XS”), Christina Aguilera (“Who’s Gonna Save U Now?”) and Avril Lavigne. Put it all together and Rina masterfully mixes the conventional with the punk.

Sawayama consistently creates nostalgia that lives in the present. “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” is an arena pop banger plucked straight out of the early 2000s, a ready-made hit that would top the charts if any A-list popstar recorded it. The electro-pop “Tokyo Love Hotel” soars in its infectious melody and Rina’s pristine vocals. Just when you think the genre pool is flooded, the disco club number “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys)” appears to maintain the highs. “Paradisin'” is a youthful anthem fitting to serve as the opening theme song to an anime.

The musical palette ranges so much that it would seem impossible create cohesion. But Rina creates a harmony, one that’s clearly taken years to mould. Sawayama pulls your ears in contrary directions, which is exactly how it maintains attention.

Beyond the surface are cogent messages that range from social commentary to personal identity. “XS” is a satirical take on materialism and overindulgence in a capitalist world. “STFU!” challenges micro-aggressions while juxtaposing its predominantly metal instrumental with a sweet and gentle chorus to truly imitate the behaviour of a closet racist. Elsewhere, Rina explores her Japanese heritage (“Akasaka Sad”) and how it’s appropriated in songs (“Tokyo Love Hotel”). It’s clever, humorous and catchy.

As a pop record, Sawayama refuses to accomplish the bare minimum. Rina’s vocals and addictive hooks shine on the surface but come equipped with bold messages and a cyclone of musical depth. Sawayama is the musical museum home to a captivating self-portrait, and it is definitely worth visiting.

Rating: 9 / 10

Best tracks: “Dynasty”, “Tokyo Love Hotel”, “STFU!”, “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?”, “XS”