Rina Sawayama is unlike any other contemporary pop artist. Listening to her music transports you to nostalgic memories that don’t quite exist, capturing the feeling of playing the Bratz Wii game in 2007 just to listen to the soundtrack, or of pre-teen angst discovering Evanescence and Paramore in your bedroom. At the same time, it sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard.
The Japanese-British Cambridge graduate first graced our Spotify playlists with her 2017 EP Rina, featuring the previously-released ‘Tunnel Vision.’ Building on existing success, such as with standalone single ‘Where U Are’, Rina nonetheless brought Sawayama’s unique persona, and her music’s idiosyncratic production, into sharper focus. Much like the swan metaphor used in the music video for ‘Cherry’ – an exploration of her sexual identity against an early noughties backdrop – she has blossomed into an even more colourful and confident artist.
And so, Rina Sawayama emerges shimmering on her debut LP, SAWAYAMA. It’s clear that emulating Y2K has become her signature brand, and it’s one which is increasingly popular with the emerging generation of young people who grew up in that era. However, alongside fresh ideas, and thematically intertwining critiques of capitalism and patriarchy with an exploration of her experience as a British-Japanese woman, Sawayama successfully takes inspiration from the music of her childhood to craft an album that feels authentically her.
The LP opens with ‘Dynasty’, a rock ballad of sorts. Declaring that “the pain in my vein is hereditary,” Sawayama turns the connotations of a ‘dynasty’ of wealth and power on their head. She doesn’t pause for breath, either, launching into the album’s three singles, ‘XS’, ‘STFU!’ and ‘Comme Des Garçons’, successively. In ‘XS’, Sawayama plays with the conventions of classic noughties pop songs focusing on wealth, appearance, and “excess” (see what she did there?), delivering a cutting indictment of the trappings of capitalism – a force which constantly tempts us to consume “just a little bit more” or to yearn to fit into a size XS.
Stand-out track ‘STFU!’ alternates between angry verses and a pissed-off chorus of “shut the fuck up!” (if you hadn’t already guessed). Against a screaming, cathartic release of rage, the music video fulfils Sawayama’s desire to voice her anger at the sometimes-paralysing dual experiences of racism and misogyny. As her date stabs into his sushi with his chopsticks, commenting, “I was quite surprised you sang, y’know… in English”, he makes his fetishisation of Asian women – and total lack of self-awareness – uncomfortably clear. Sawayama awkwardly half-smiles before launching into the aggressive anthem, her giggles shifting into manic but melodic laughter.
Her thematic focus does not falter – in ‘Comme Des Garçons,’ she references the popular designer brand in a feminist dance anthem of sorts, declaring, “I’m so confident… Like the boys.” Sawayama revealed to Rolling Stone that the track’s inspiration was “the idea that the socially acceptable version of confidence is in acting ‘like the boys’, otherwise as a woman you get called a bitch.” It’s a declaration of her own confidence in faking it ‘til you make it, her clever use of genre laying the shallow reality bare.
Closing the first half of the album, ‘Akasaka Sad’ and ‘Paradisin’’ continue along similarly experimental lines. The former’s hook seems almost directly lifted from Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me a River’, but the track is far from a generic copy of an early noughties hit. Once again, Sawayama draws on her own experience – namely, the bond she feels with her parents through the distance she feels from Japan. On ‘Paradisin’’, she takes a much more straightforwardly nostalgic approach, continuing to hold our attention with a faster video game soundtrack-style vibe.
The second half of the record takes a slightly different turn. While the framework established from the beginning remains, each track seems simpler, calmer. A basic love song wouldn’t seem out of place here, yet Sawayama continues to tackle a different kind of personal material. ‘Love Me 4 Me’ serves as a kind of ode to herself; on ‘Bad Friend’, she explores her own role in the loss of a best friend on the same day as that of a partner. Towards the end of the album, ‘Chosen Family’ continues the discussion of platonic love. It’s a song written for her own chosen family – her “LGBTQ sisters and brothers.”
The track ‘Tokyo Love Hotel’ is where Sawayama paints the clearest picture of the difficulty she has found with feeling at home – exploring how Tokyo feels both like where she belongs and where she is an outsider. Using the metaphor of the love hotels used by tourists, she comments on how they see Tokyo as a personal theme park without stopping to think about the lives of the people who live there. But she too is a tourist: in the end, Sawayama admits, “I guess this is just another song about Tokyo.”
While the second half of the album lacks the punch of the first, it finishes on a high with ‘Snakeskin.’ Through the skilful metaphor of “a snakeskin handbag that people commercialise, consume, and use as they want”, she laments the pain of being used – by those she loves, by the music industry, by the society we live in – expressing her burning desire to break free and “shed” her skin.
Delivering her first LP, Rina Sawayama has already crafted her own pop persona. She plays on a generation’s memories of childhood whilst offering fresh subject material to encapsulate the mood of her late twenties. She’s angry at the world, reflecting on the choices of her younger self, as she attempts to put the pieces of her current identity together. And that’s why it works so well – aren’t we all?