Album review: Rina Sawayama - Sawayama

Album review: Rina Sawayama - Sawayama | Random J Pop

Sawayama is a Pop album. This is the most basic and lazy way to describe this album, but it is. Even if this short descriptor robs this album of the full gamut in which it runs within its 43 minute runtime. So let's rephrase that.

Sawayama is an intersection of Pop. And Rina is the lollipop lady running that bitch.

Rina's debut album manages to be a melting pot of influences without robbing her of her own identity. Even though a couple of the songs sound like 2000s Britney, it's still Rina as fuck. Sometimes shit may sound a little like Evanescence, but it's still Rina. She may give you a taste of Björk and Hikaru Utada's Exodus, but it's still Rina. She may even give you a little Hikaru Utada First Love tease, but it's still Rina. Rina manages to create this entire world and a soundscape within an album which is unmistakably hers, even when the songs within it reminds you of others.

Rina is most certainly a Pop artist, but she is not bound by genre. Because she is the genre.

There's no way to talk about this album and not discuss Rina's songwriting, because it's part of the DNA of these songs and one of the things that defines Rina as an artist. Rina is not only able to write songs which are deeply personal and often about unconventional microcosms of life, but she's able to shape them into catchy, digestible Pop songs - which is harder to do than most think. The brilliance in how Rina writes these songs is that they have levels. Pop music for the most part is supposed to be really surface level stuff. We shouldn't have to dig for the meaning behind a Pop song. But sometimes Rina is like 'Okay. I might make you have to dig a little bit. But I'mma make those titties shake and have you sing along regardless.'

Songs such a "Dynasty", "STFU!" and "Bad Friend" are pretty straight forward. I'm that bitch. Just shut up. Damn, we drifted a part and I might be the reason. Where-as the likes of "XS" and "Comme Des Garçons (Like The Boys)" may have their true meaning go over heads at first, and just be seen as flex records. It's not immediately apparent that one is a satire on capitalism and consumerism, and the other is about toxic masculinity. But once you know, it's like 'OF COURSE IT FUCKING IS'. But it's fine, because you can pop, dip and spin to one, and live your Britney "I'm a Slave 4 U" life to the other regardless. Understanding of a songs lyrics never detracts from its appeal as just a great sounding song. It's brilliant. Not just because it speaks to the accessibility of Rina and her music, but it makes these songs almost like films, where you go back to catch all of the signs, that what you thought was about X, was really setting up Y. Then you have a song like "Akasaka Sad", which will have some Googling what the hell an Akasaka is (it's a district in Japan to which Rina has thrown all the wigs) and a meaning which could be interpreted in so many different ways. In this sense the songs are pretty much a true reflection of Rina and us as human beings in general. As much as you know someone, there are things about them that you'll never fully know, even though they're sharing everything in plain sight.

But even when Rina is being direct in her lyrics, it never comes at the expense of being surface level. She's still making you really think and question, whilst being wholly earnest in what is her own truth.

"Dynasty" is not only an amazing opening to an album, but the subject matter of accepting who you are, yet wanting to be more than that and break a cycle of damage that your history, your family and your bloodline has passed down to you is powerful. "Paradisin'" being about that period in your life where you really out doing whatever and living your best life, without any disregard for your parents; just as long as YOU were having a good time - something which hits now because kids be growing up and being a mess in a world which is so different from what it was in the days of MSN messenger. "Bad Friend" being about how you can end up being so estranged from somebody who you were once so close with for no real particular reason, is a sucker punch. It's something many of us go through in life; when we change schools or leave college and just grow older. The people in your life that you thought would be your friends forever sometimes drift out of your life. I'm experiencing that now and so this song was a real punch in the balls. And it stings harder now during a pandemic, when you have way too much time to think about that shit and wonder if you should check on said people and find out if they're okay. "Fuck This World" is as the song title states. Gurl. Same. More so now with Miss Corona and her never ending Contamination World tour. C'mon Teletubby. Take us to Mars! Then there's "Chosen Family", which completely shits on the concept of 'Blood being thicker than water'. A term I've always hated since hearing it as a kid, because blood doesn't make somebody family. It never has.

Rina's songs are relatable, even if they're about things which are super specific to her. And in a couple of instances she references things which step away from 'this is about me, but also about everybody', in songs like "Akasaka Sad" and "Tokyo Love Hotel", which coincidentally both happen to have Japanese locations in their titles. But even with these songs, you still feel them on some form of level because you can relate to the feeling, even if you can't relate to the situation. The feeling of isolation and depression, and the realisation that it follows you no matter where you go. Slightly revering everybody loving something that you love, knowing that they'll never know that thing as well as you do and hoping that they never will.

Rina's songwriting is remarkable in that regardless of what you get out of the song, you still feel it in the ways that you're supposed to. You feel like you wanna hit a runway and serve pussy (or dick in keeping with the theme of the song) when you hear "Comme Des Garçons (Like The Boys)". You feel like you wanna buss that routine from the "Overprotected (Remix)" video in the middle of a mall when you hear "XS". You feel a crying Pepe the frog when you hear "Bad Friend". And no matter what song it is, that shit is catchy and has a great hook.

The range of sounds on this album is ridiculous within the first four songs alone. But the range of subject matters on this album is equally as impressive. But the magic in this is that the album not only feels like a fully rounded body of work, but a true reflection of what it's like to be human and this is part of what helps pull all of the wildly different songs together. The unification in subject matter is that of self-acceptance and accountability. Acceptance for who you were, are and want to be. Accountability for how you make yourself and others around you feel. Accountability for the control that you have, however limited, for how you are perceived in the world. This is a very important thing, not just for Sawayama as an album, but for it being Rina's first album. It gives you an understanding of her journey leading up to this moment and expressing it in a way which is 100% true to who she is.

And for this album to release in the midst of a pandemic feels oddly fitting given the topics that the album touches on. Some of these songs are so cerebral that it makes them land differently at a time when life isn't moving so fast for us all, because we can really take them in.

Give a bitch an Ivor Novello award.

Album review: Rina Sawayama - Sawayama | Random J Pop

It's difficult to talk about the lyrics to songs without talking about the sounds and Rina's vocals, because the three are so synonymous and work as a whole. This may sound like a 'DUH moment', but there are many a song where one works better without the other. Half of Ariana's Sweetener would have worked better if it were set to different music. And most of the time when I'm listening to Perfume's music, I'm listening to the instrumentals because I just cannot with the vocals.

The production on this album is amazing. Every song has something about it production and arrangement-wise which makes it special. The switch-ups in "STFU!". The chord changes toward the end of "Akasaka Sad". The saxophone solo in "Paradisin'". The stadium rock vibes and guitar solo in "Who's Gonna Save U Now?". Even if you don't like a song, the one thing you can't say is bad about it is the production. The meticulousness in the music and the attention to detail is crazy. The sonics on this thing really are incredible, and there is a conscious effort to ensure that despite the album jumping around music styles, there are elements which tie the songs together. "XS" featuring trash metal guitars tethers it to "STFU!". But the early 2000s Britney vibe also ties it to "Loving Me 4 Me". Album opener "Dynasty" is big, bombastic, with these operatic moments, making it feel like the opening sequence theme to a video game. And then you have album closer "Snakeskin" which shares the same operatic flourishes as "Dynasty" and sounds like the final boss theme to a video game, which is no coincidence given that it features the melody from the Final Fantasy victory fanfare. For this album to sound so cohesive despite the range of styles is remarkable. And whilst the running order certainly helps provide that sense of flow, it's not lost even if you shuffle the songs.

There are things about this album which really shouldn't work as well as they do. "STFU!" should have been a mess with its switch between trash metal and a damn music box, but it's amazing. The decision to have "Snakeskin" close the album seems bizarre initially, especially after a song like "Chosen Family". But it's perfect because it ends the album with the same energy of which it started with "Dynasty", and brings closure thematically; going from accepting who you are, to the realisation of embracing who you want to be. And rather than ending the album on an obviously definitive moment like "Chosen Family", it subverts expectation and instead ends on what feels like a cliffhanger of uncertainty. The final chords are hauntingly beautiful and are a perfectly ominous end to an album, which leaves you wanting more than if it had ended with "Chosen Family".

After an EP, a couple of singles and now an album, it's clear that Rina has a soundscape that's hers, and that she and her producer Clarence Clarity make magic together. Clarence is the Darkchild to Rina's Brandy. The Max Martin to her Britney. The Timbaland to her Aaliyah. The Neptunes to her Kelis. There's a trust that they have in each other, which speaks to the quality of the music and the directions in which they take it, and also take each other. I'mma need to see Rina and Clarence get some Grammys.

Now, let's talk about these vocals. It's like we're getting a whole new Rina to the one we got on the EP. It was clear that Rina had a really nice voice back in the days of "Where U Are" and "Cyber Stockholm Syndrome", but she stayed within a pocket and never really left it. Rina really plays with her voice on this album, to not only match the energy and the vibe of Clarence's production, but to give us PERFORMANCE. From the laugh into singing on "STFU!", the high wails on "Dynasty", the Donna Summer style coos on "Comme Des Garçons (Like The Boys)", the R&B style note ad-libs during the last run of the chorus of "Who's Gonna Save U Now?", to the operatic serve on "Snakeskin". Rina matches the range in her songwriting and the music with her vocals, and she sounds great. My only one gripe, if you can even call it that, is that I wish we got more in terms of vocal arrangements as far as harmonies are concerned on certain songs. I would have loved to have gotten a nice little three-part harmony moment during the last run of the chorus on "Paradisin'", or for "Love Me 4 Me" to have had moments where Rina was giving us vocals layers and ad-libs that felt like they were floating in and out of the song, especially during the second verse when the music pulls back, and towards the end.

Album review: Rina Sawayama - Sawayama | Random J Pop

It's incredibly rare to have an artist put out a such a body of work for their first album. This is usually what we get on album three or four, when an artist goes through that 'I can finally be myself' phase once they've proven to their label they can sell units and are given the reign to do whatever they like. I can imagine many a major album exec turning their nose up at an album like this for a new signee and shutting down any chance of a song like "STFU!" being a lead single. But again, Rina's doing it on her own terms because she knows what she wants and is accountable and she has a story to tell that's hers. There's great bravery in this album. Everything about Sawayama is Rina putting herself out there on the line. Not just as a pop star and a songwriter, but as a person. It's not through coincidence nor laziness that Rina's EP and debut album make up her full name. She is giving herself to the world.

Sawayama in and of itself is very much a stand alone album. You can come into it having never heard of her or her music and find enjoyment in just how good these songs are and how they hold together as an album. But for those who have been down with Rina from the start, Sawayama is a continuation of the journey that started with her debut EP. Naturally as you would expect in the jump from an EP to an LP, everything feels bigger, but not to the point where Rina gets lost in it all. This is still a set of stories about Rina's existence, but her vision is far broader now. Rina was about Rina dealing with her own shit in her own bubble. Where-as Sawayama is more about Rina existing out in this world and the ways in which it affects her and those close to her.

Rina proves that she really is that bitch and one of the most exciting artists within Pop right now. Even if she doesn't get multi platinum sales and the awards she deserves, then I need her to at least know one thing. Bitch. You did THAT. It's remarkable that this album still manages to surprise you as a fan, because the singles alone showed such breadth and you figured they'd prepare you for what to expect. But then the album comes along and is like 'SURPRISE BITCH' at every turn. Just when you think you've heard it all, Rina red shells that ass.


Album highlights:
■ Dynasty 🏆 J's fave
■ XS
■ Comme Des Garçons (Like The Boys)
■ Akasaka Sad
■ Paradisin'
■ Love Me 4 Me
■ Bad Friend
■ Love The World (Interlude)
■ Who's Gonna Save U Now?
■ Tokyo Love Hotel
■ Snakeskin