EP Review: Rina Sawayama - Rina

Mini album (EP) review: Rina Sawayama - Rina | Random J Pop

Rina Sawayama. A Japanese girl based in London with a wholly 90s aesthetic, singing R&B leaning Pop songs. It was a package that I'd not witnessed before, but it was never strange to me. I'm a fan of Hikaru Utada, who grew up in New York, sang R&B and then branched out into every fucking type of music under the sun except Country. And also Crystal Kay, born to a black father and a Korean mother, raised in Yokohama and singing R&B. Then there's me. A black guy living in London who likes listening to J-Pop. So there was nothing about Rina that was difficult to grasp or accept. Although Rina not being something that's easy for people to 'get' may be part of why she is not as big a name as she should be. Even with an EP that couldn't be any easier to get into.

Part of what I feel has always held Rina back from mainstream success is that it's so easy to get caught up in her aesthetic and the space that she occupies as a result of these different boxes which she ticks, that the music has an opinion formed of it before anybody hears it, and therefore gets overlooked. Some may look at Rina and expect a certain sound, then be thrown off and weirded out when the reality doesn't meet their expectation. Even though Rina's sound is not some left field, out of pocket sound that nobody has done nor heard before. The sense of overlooking is strong on Rina's EP, because everything isn't quite what it seems, even though there is universality in what Rina offers.

Rina's music is Pop. There is no skirting around that. She has an R&B vocal style and some of her songs lean heavily into other genres. But at their core, her songs are Pop. There's is an immediate accessibility to Rina's songs because of how they sound. Even in the running time of an EP, she manages to pull from lots of different styles of the genre and create a perfect capsule of Pop as a genre unto itself. The songs are so well produced, the finish so glossy and the hooks so catchy that you don't even realise what Rina is singing about on a first listen - which is the difficulty of just existing.

Rina's self titled EP feels almost meta in the sense that it not only provides a commentary on the emotional difficulties of life, but also a commentary on Pop music. Pop has come a long way. From being widely loved, to being ridiculed, to being cool to like again, and being widely appreciated. The definition of Pop has changed and expanded greatly over the years. The creation of good Pop music is now seen as an art and a unique skill. Many of us didn't want to admit to liking Britney, ★NSync and Backstreet boys back in the day, but we're now at a point in music where it's fine to say that they put out amazing Pop records which still hold to this day. Rina celebrates this on her EP and wears her Pop loving heart on her sleeve. Each song on the album pulls from a very specific and different era of Pop. "Ordinary superstar" sounds like a rock tinged Pop record from a girl group of the 90s who came out with that one top selling album and then flopped after the second album, because they tried to show 'growth' in their sound and move away from their typical Pop sound, when that's all people wanted from them. "Take me as I am" sounds like a record from the early 00s, when Pop was trying to be a bit more hip and beat driven, emulating the likes of Max Martin's ★NSync and Britney offerings. "Alterlife" sounds like a song from that Pop bitch who loves rock and always delivers bops and an aesthetic, but never consistent hits. But none the less, she has a loyal fan base and continues releasing music independently. Rina's love for Pop is very evident on this EP. But within this she manages to create a lane for herself and a brand of Pop that manages to feel like her own, even though it's a tapestry of other peoples.

Mini album (EP) review: Rina Sawayama - Rina | Random J Pop

What sets Rina's brand of Pop apart from those whom she borrows is her subject matters. This EP focuses a lot on loneliness and rediscovery, and on half of the songs on this album the narratives are easy to miss. It's easy to listen to "Take me as I am" and just hear a sassy kiss off song and miss that the song is about somebody finally reaching a place of self acceptance and not allowing anybody in your life who isn't willing to embrace every part of you. It's easy to listen to "Cyber Stockholm Syndrome" and just hear an R&B groove based bop about a girl chilling and enjoying alone time, whilst glossing over it being about the anxiety of being around other people and finding ways to be alone even when you're physically in the presence of others. There are instances on this album where the music also infers or matches the subject matter and feel unified to the point where the message behind the song is clear. The dark punk and ominous thrashing of "Alterlife" completely sets the tone for a story of angst and trying to centre yourself in the midst of everything fucking up around you. And the spaced out wandering vibe of "10-20-40" perfectly captures the mood of feeling as though you're just floating through a situation that you don't fully understand, but you know isn't ideal. Listening to "Alterlife" and "10-20-40" is what made me go back and listen to the other songs with the lighter Pop based dispositions to see if there was something I missed. THEN the lyrics hit me. I'm not sure whether this was Rina's intention all along, but regardless, it worked. And just like that you have a narrative that connects each song and arcs across the EP as whole.

I can't talk about this EP without highlighting the production, which comes courtesy of Clarence Clarity. The production on every track is polished, nuanced and considered. There is a complete symbiosis between Clarence's music and Rina's lyrics and vocals. The two of them have a great chemistry which comes through on every song. Clarence is to Rina here what Timbaland was to Aaliyah on One in a million. What Rodney Jerkins was to Brandy on Never say never. If Rina doesn't have Clarence do the whole of her debut LP, I'mma be pissed, because they make a great team.

Rina is the template for a near perfect EP. Not just in terms of its content, but its length too. Clocking in at 24 minutes, there is enough material here to satisfy and make you feel like you listened to complete body of work, but still leaves you wanting more.

If there was one thing to knock this EP for, it'd probably be a couple of the songs feeling like they're lacking a strong middle 8 or bridge section. Especially after you've listened to the perfection that is "Alterlife", which has a solid middle 8, a great bridge section with a guitar solo and a whole ass key change. The other would be Rina's vocals. Rina has a nice voice, but they sound better on some songs than on others. I'm not sure if it's because of the style she adopts to sing certain songs (i.e "Ordinary superstar" has Rina in full on monotone sing-a-long mode) or because some songs may have been recorded earlier than others, with Rina's voice growing and changing over the course of recording material. But it's something that I notice. Again, because of "Alterlife" where Rina gives her most solid vocal performance on the EP.

Rina's self titled EP is one of the most polished and well rounded EP's that I've listened to. It manages to provide layers, whilst remaining accessible. Rina manages to marry real life day-to-day issues and problems such as insecurity, depression and anxiety, and package them into these great pop records. It's very easy to overlook the subject matters of the songs because you're so caught up in how much of a bop each song is. But the more you listen to each song, the more the lyrics come to the forefront and then you're like 'Oh shit'. And then you realise that you were just getting low to a song about depression, then bussed down and made it pop to a song about crippling anxiety. And there's nothing wrong with this, which is kinda the whole point. Rina manages to find the intersections where this all works; where songs about real life shit that isn't all sunshine lollipops and rainbows can still be fun to listen to, whilst remaining heartfelt, personal and sincere. The sound of each song adds a layer of instant accessibility, but Rina's honesty creates another for those that care to tap into it.

Rina's EP has me fucked up. If this this is any indication of what her full length album is going to sound like, then we're all gonna end up bald headed.

VERDICT: Came here on my own, party on my phone

Album highlights:
■ Ordinary superstar
■ Take Me As I Am 🔥
■ 10-20-40 🔥
■ Alterlife 🏆
■ Cyber Stockholm Syndrome 🔥