‘SAWAYAMA’: Rina Sawayama’s raw and genre-bending debut album

For Rina Sawayama, genre is driven by lyrics. So when she writes lyrics that refer to pain and hardship, she opts for nu-metal. Nostalgia, 2000’s R&B. Love, “a bit country”. With that, she creates one of this year’s most exciting pop records. Sawayama is her eponymous debut album, a restless multi-genre record facing the complexity of her upbringing: a rebellious teenagehood, her Japanese heritage, and a political mindset. And it hits hard.

“Dynasty” is a strong opening. The guitars are thick and heavy, her voice striking. Production-wise, it’s one of the “craziest” songs, taking up 250 tracks under producer Clarence Clarity’s wing. It’s a story that heeds that kind of complexity, telling of her intergenerational pain so-often twisted between family figures. But this time she gains ownership of her story. She reigns with a powerful voice and strong imagery.

In “XS” Sawayama takes a stab at capitalism. A nod to early 2000’s R&B and her Cambridge degree in Politics, Psychology and Sociology, bursts of acoustic riffs, “metal guitar stabs” and Sawayama’s now Britney-esque voice satirises consumer culture to the extreme. She raves about Cartier and Tesla. “I’m the baddest and I’m worth it,” she enthuses. Like Britney’s “Gimme More”, Sawayama uses lyrical themes of greed to mock capitalist consumption: “Gimme just a little bit (More), little bit of (Excess).”

“STFU!” continues to be in-your-face with its brash and aggressive metal guitars, screaming against racial microaggressions that Sawayama has often endured as a Japanese woman in the UK. And with the multi-faceted nature of the phrase, she screams it with hostility (with the thrashing guitar riff) as much as she hides it behind a smile (in the sparkly pop interludes). Following her previous 2018 single “Flicker” (a mid-tempo pop song), it is definitely a shocking change and telling of the musically-adventurous artist she’s become. She’s confident in herself. And with “Comme Des Garcons (Like The Boys)”, she runs an audacious bassline that reinforces this mindset while challenging the socially-accepted version of confidence – acting like “one of the boys”.

With themes of family and identity set in Sawayama’s headlining tracks, the album effortlessly takes shape. Sawayama traces her rebellious stage at teenagehood (“Paradisin’”); seeks self-love (“Love Me 4 Me”); acknowledges her wrongs after neglecting her friends (“Bad Friend”); turns to her “Chosen Family” (her queer family); and distracts herself from her problems by addressing the wrong in the world (“Fuck This World”) – all of which is told through striking production, either balladic or brash and visceral to accommodate its lyrical themes. Often it’s the latter, and even at her most personal (in referencing her mother and Japanese heritage), Clarity offers punchy electronic production that almost blunts Sawayama’s emotions (“Akasawa Sad”), still without losing a sense of introspect.

Though Sawayama has elements of her influences and Clarity’s discography, it rarely comes across as derivative; mostly, the album relies on its lyrical content to drive this complex sound, making the tracing of her personal history the highlight of the album. The themes are raw, but the pop instrumentals are there to “[remind] you of a time when everything was alright.”

“Snakeskin” is an apt conclusion, affecting as it is punchy. Her mum’s voice concludes the song, taken from when Sawayama interviewed her for her 60th birthday, accompanied by a haunting recording of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata. It’s a piece her mum often used to play. Ending on that note, it’s like she’s coming to terms with her past – she recognises pain and she grows from it. It’s still a pop song, but Sawayama is otherwise a raw and introspective album: one that will leave you raving as much as it will leave you reflecting.

Favourite Tracks: XS, STFU!, Bad Friend, Love Me 4 Me, Fuck This World (Interlude)

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