Album Review: Rina Sawayama – ‘SAWAYAMA’
Rina Sawayama exhibits an impressive combination of genre-flexibility and thoughtful, considered lyricism on her eponymous debut record, SAWAYAMA.
The much anticipated follow up to the 2017 EP RINA, SAWAYAMA is the eponymous debut from Japanese-born British artist Rina Sawayama of Dirty Hit records, and was produced by Clarence Clarity. Against an impressive and dynamic sonic backdrop, Rina engages multiple issues such as individuality, relationships, and the perversion of Japanese culture. Almost every track is awash with deep lyrical insight that will stop and give you pause for thought whilst simultaneously offering delightful ear candy to unpack.
SAWAYAMA begins at its most bombastic and powerful, raging against the machine into which Rina has been placed. The album features expertly blended pop, nu-metal and R&B influences – audible in both Dynasty and STFU! – alongside more introspective tracks such as Bad Friend and the beautifully sweet Chosen Family. Rina takes us on a journey down a sonic highway that you just don’t want to get off, addressing the struggle of coming to terms with one’s own identity across multiple tracks.
Whether it be dealing with how the past of our family moulds the person we become on Dynasty, or how modern society often confines us to gender norms on feminist-anthem-disguised-as-90’s-pop-beat Comme des Garçons, Rina never fails to offer a unique perspective. On the latter track, Rina builds on the work of female artists who have come before her such as lil’ Kim or Christina Aguilera by refusing to abide to preconceived notions of how women should behave in a patriarchal society.
Nu-metal gets a 2020 makeover on the album’s leading single STFU!, landing sonically between Dua Lipa and Evanescence in the best possible way. Featuring muscular, rage-inducing guitars and angst filled lyrics, Rina unleashes her frustration with racist microaggressions and the western fetishization of Asian women. The notion of obsession with Japanese culture is also explored on Tokyo Love Hotel, in which Rina compares the way Westerners treat the culture to Tokyo love hotels, briefly enjoying it, then tossing it away like a passing fad.
'Almost every track is awash with deep lyrical insight that will stop and give you pause for thought whilst simultaneously offering delightful ear candy to unpack'.
The modernisation of nu-metal continues on XS, a bittersweet exposé of obsessive consumerism at the expense of the vulnerable, be that human or environmental. The bright instrumentals which back the sweet lyrics of the chorus are followed by dark, heavy string riffs, emphasising the juxtaposition between the pretty face of brands with a darker truth following just behind. The moody dance track Snakeskin continues this theme of exploitation. One of the shorter pieces on the album (excluding the outro) at only two minutes and thirty seconds, the track builds up its mystique with pulsing beats and funeral inspired bell tolls before hitting a dark, rumbling breakdown that sounds as if it’s straight out of a Billie Eilish record. Snakeskin compares consuming Rina’s album of emotional pain to buying a snakeskin handbag; it’s beautiful in its aesthetic, but the suffering it took to put on the shelf should be understood.
Rina effortlessly transitions into R&B pop on Akasaka Sad, a melancholic song describing Rina’s unending pursuit of happiness. The influences of producer Clarence Clarity shine through with his instantly recognisable, bubbly electronic melodies that pair ever so sweetly with Rina’s heartfelt lyrics. Rina continues on her journey of self-reflection over the tracks Bad Friend and Love Me 4 Me, respectively discussing letting close relationships grow stale and the importance being true to yourself. Switching up genres again, Who’s Gonna Save U Now? embarks on a live recorded, stadium rock power trip. Whilst the use of a live recording may take away from the clarity of the track, it certainly makes up for it with an electrifying atmosphere and Rina’s powerful vocals.
'Rina builds on the work of female artists who have come before her such as lil’ Kim or Christina Aguilera by refusing to abide to preconceived notions of how women should behave in a patriarchal society'.
Breaking from the heavy themes, Paradisin' acts as a pallet cleanser, changing from deep and meaningful cuts to bright bubble-gum pop inspired by Japanese videogame arcades. It’s a nostalgic trip that sees Rina making a song about having fun as a teenager without getting tied down by negative vibes. Tear-jerker Chosen Family – the only true ballad on the album – builds on soft piano and electronic instrumentals before reaching a euphoric crescendo of wailing electric guitars and choral vocalists. This is the climax of Rina’s search for meaning, realising the answer to the questions she has been posing this entire album: can she escape the family pain she has lived with all her life, explored in Dynasty? Can she find the place that makes her feel safe and happy that she is searching for in Akasaka Sad? Rina’s epiphany occurs here as she finds her tribe in her friends and the ones she chooses to be her family; she has found her happiness.
Featuring everything from R&B, reinvented nu-metal and pop, SAWAYAMA is a fascinating self-portrait, delving deep into Rina’s personal history and suffering. Every track features a unique idea or sound that is rewarding to listen to again and again. Rina Sawayama is, for certain, a name you will be hearing again.