Album Review: Rina Sawayama - Hold the Girl

The post header image, featuring the text ‘?J Pop Album Review’ and a shot of a vinyl of Rina Sawayama’s album ‘Hold the Girl’.

Hold the Girl is a completely different beast to Rina’s debut album, Sawayama. Some may be surprised at what they got with this album. Even I was a tad surprised initially. I say ‘a tad’, because the writing truly was on the wall with Sawayama. But as different an album as Hold the Girl is to Sawayama, it’s not so much of a change of direction, that it left me confused as to how we arrived at it. Far more of Sawayama carries through into Hold the Girl than it seems at first. And the more I listened to Hold the Girl, the more that it being a follow-up to Sawayama made sense; even if some of the finer details did not.

The most notable change from Sawayama, is that Hold the Girl leans right the way into rock. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody who has followed Rina since the days of her debut EP. Rina has always done rock. Sawayama opened with a rock song. The lead single from Sawayama was a rock song. Rina’s EP had a couple of rock songs. The remix of “Free Woman” that Rina and Clarence Clarity helmed for Lady Gaga’s Dawn of Chromatica flipped a pop ditty into a rock song. Rina covered a rock song for Spotify. Rina doing rock is not out of the blue. But even though Rina has always done rock, there was always a balance with either club cuts, straight pop or R&B leaning songs; and this balance may be what some fans liked more than the rock sound itself. As for me, personally? “Dynasty” is my favourite song on Sawayama. One of my favourite Rina songs is “Alterlife”. Rock Rina rocks. It suits her. So for Rina to indulge in that for a whole album? I’m cool with it. And in Rina’s defence (not that she needs one), whenever she was asked about a Sawayama follow-up, she was consistent about what was inspiring her and how the album was shaping up. So if you are a Pixel, you should not be the slightest bit shocked at Hold the Girl sounding the way it does. It is exactly the album Rina had long been saying that it would be.

Rock is a part of Rina’s brand. But Rina’s overall brand is doing whatever the fuck she likes. And choosing to do an album like Hold the Girl is very Rina, which I’m sure fans will ultimately expect and respect. But as for audiences who are new to Rina, they may see this album differently, because they have nothing to compare it to. Therefore, they will take it as I’m sure Rina wanted everybody to take it - without any preconceived notions or expectations based on what came before.

A shot of Rina Sawayama looking over her shoulder, whilst wearing a white sleeveless dress, with her hair slicked and styled into a Japanese inspired style bun. The background behind Rina is blue, and the silhouette of tree branches can be seen on the right-hand side.
Rina Sawayama - Hold the Girl | © 2022 Dirty Hit

Rina is smart. Given that Hold the Girl debuted at number 2 on the UK charts (and woulda gone to number 1 were it not for Blackpink and that dusty EP masquerading as an album) her choice to go full chart rock clearly worked. But Rina’s choices aren’t calculated. Not that it would be a bad thing if they were. But Rina is an Internet girl and a fan of pop in all of its forms, and this is a big part of her persona. She absorbs all that she sees and likes, and it informs what she does - which is very normal and the case with many pop artists. But Rina is very open about how much of a fan she is of music, and how much of a geek she is when it comes to pop culture as a whole.

Rina grew during the late 90s when rock and Brit pop bands were dominating the charts. Oasis, Blur, Garbage, Pulp, Supergrass, The Coors. Rina witnessed the success that P!nk experienced when she did a 180 for Missundaztood. Rina was around during the Xenomania boom in the UK when pop rock was a big part of the Sugababes (“Round Round”) and Girls Aloud’s (“Wake Me Up”) singles. Rina saw that an artist like Hikaru Utada could drop a wholly R&B sounding album with a song on it like “Automatic”, then drop albums with songs like “Drama” and “Uso Mitai na I Love You” on them. Rina saw how R&B record label LaFace signed Avril Lavigne, a rock artist, and how she became a huge star. Rina saw Ayumi Hamasaki dominate J-pop with rock as her bread and butter sound, but with the glamorous images oft associated with pop and R&B stars. Rina saw the re-brand of Max Martin with Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone”, following years of Britney, NSync and The Backstreet Boys. So Rina has probably built this acute awareness of navigating pop and chart success that she may not even be aware of.

Sawayama showed how on the money Rina was when it came to taste making, and that has not changed with Hold the Girl. Not one bit.

Rina’s range of influence when it comes to rock alone is pretty broad, and it’s evident on Hold the Girl. We get 90s rock ballads, stadium rock anthems, 2000s pop rock, 80s punk rock. If Top Gun: Maverick wanted a song from a pop artist that woulda stuck, the Yu Yevon of Scientology shoulda called Rina. Because she’s honestly doing Lady Gaga right now better than Lady Gaga did Lady Gaga. But we’ll get to that.

None of the above isn’t to say that Hold the Girl is not an easy album to take and doesn’t require adjustment if you were a fan of Sawayama, even if you are primed for what it presents. Hold the Girl is still a very different experience; to such a point where you couldn’t say ‘If you liked Sawayama, then you’ll like Hold the Girl’. Hold the Girl is a different album, even if it shares the same core and the same parts as Sawayama.

Rina Sawayama in front of a yellow backdrop, with the branches of a cherry blossom tree on her right hand side. Rina is wearing a white hooded dress with the hood up over her head, and short white finger gloves.
Rina Sawayama - Hold the Girl | © 2022 Dirty Hit

I try not to let other reviews influence my own. I actually read very music reviews. But a common thing I have been seeing across Hold the Girl reviews has been interesting to me. And that is ‘Hold the Girl is more commercial than Sawayama’. This makes me pause, because Sawayama was commercial as hell. People seem to have taken the genre-hopping of that album as a compromise to its commerciality, despite the songs that made the album up being wholly commercial.

Rina grew up as part of the MTV generation, during a time in music when there were still trends, but they coexisted in a way we don’t really see now. Nowadays it’s just a case of everything coming and going in short waves, or just specific artists being the only ones able to get guaranteed high chart placements. Versus the early 90s and early 2000s when the charts were looking absolutely crazy, because you’d have pop girls, boy bands, divas, rock bands, rappers and Enya, all in the top 20 at the exact same time.

Rina, Sawayama and Hold the Girl are a by-product of Rina being of a time where every genre and type of artist had a shot at a hit, and MTV had diversified its portfolio. Sawayama’s genre-hopping from song-to-song evoked the feeling of being sat and watching a show like TRL as it ran down its top 10, going from Linkin Park, to Britney, to Evanescence, to Janet Jackson. Where-as Hold the Girl is Rina locking into one genre, and showing that she can be that girl who gets played on MTV2.

Rock is a great fit for the stories that Rina wanted to tell on this album. I couldn’t imagine Rina singing about how religion done fucked up her life to the beat of “What a Girl Wants”. It just wouldn’t work. And this has always been Rina’s angle since the beginning. Often when she’s pulled out the rock card, it’s been for some of her most introspective songs. Even something breezy like “Paradisin’” was still introspective and told us a lot about who Rina was at a point in her life. There is this additional layer of drama, gravitas and earnestness which comes through as a result of her songs leaning into rock.

Rina can do whatever sound she pleases, and make it work, because she is THAT bitch. Sawayama proved that. But the sound of Hold the Girl isn’t the problem. Some of the executions are. And this is where Hold the Girl started to get a little messy for me.

Rina Sawayama sat on a chair, in front of a neon green backdrop. Rina is wearing strapless black body suit, with a sheer black body-less top which covers part of her décolletage and arms.
Rina Sawayama - Hold the Girl | © 2022 Dirty Hit

Something that Rina does not get enough credit for is how good a songwriter she is. The hooks on this album do not quit. Sawayama was no fluke. Rina knows how to write a fucking pop song. I would say that the hooks on the album actually stick a whole lot better than those on Sawayama. HOWEVER. There is a lot of repetition on this album. Some of the song concepts feel similar. Some of the metaphors used across songs are similar, and it can blur the lines between the songs - especially with Hold the Girl being centred primarily on one sound. Being trapped in confinements, building something around you (a fortress or a cathedral), being a child, religion, being outside, the wind; these are things which come up pretty frequently in the album. It makes sense that an album which tells one story would have motifs which are reoccurring. It’s what every good story should do. The issue with Rina doing this on Hold the Girl is actually less about there being repetition, and more about the sequencing and the song selections.

Sawayama could at least feign differences between lyrical similarities between songs due to the drastic differences in sound. And even songs which did share similar themes and sounds were sequenced apart (i.e “Dynasty” being track 1 and “Snakeskin” being track 13). But this is harder to hide on Hold the Girl.

Hold the Girl doesn’t flow the best. After a couple of weeks of listening to the album, I ended up resequencing it. Whilst it made the album flow better, it this further highlighted the repetition between songs, because my sequencing wound up grouping the likes of “Forgiveness”, “Phantom”, “Hurricanes” and “Catch Me in the Air” together; which thematically makes sense. But there are similar motifs which go across each of them, and they all share similar sounds.

Whilst Rina does a good job of giving us different styles of rock, I wish Rina had either given us more, had the producers tweak the sounds of certain songs to not have them all bleed into one sound, or to just flat out take songs off the album. I like “Hurricanes”. But did the album need it when we have other songs telling the same story with similar sounds?

Rina Sawayama is stood in front of a yellow backdrop. Rina is wearing a black bikini top, with her hair down at her shoulders. Several of her body tattoos are clearly visible.
Rina Sawayama - Hold the Girl | © 2022 Dirty Hit

Rina has a really good voice, but for some reason, she doesn’t really push it on her studio recordings. You realise how much Rina is holding back when you hear some of her live performances. And the one song on Hold the Girl where this became clear, was “Catch Me in the Air” - a song that Rina had been performing on her last tour long before we got an album announcement and before it was released as a single. When the fan footage of Rina’s performances hit the YouTubes, I really liked the song. But then when Rina released it, I was shocked at how underwhelming the studio version was comparatively. Rina’s voice was nowhere near as strong. It featured a whole lot less feeling. The song didn’t hit in the same way.

Rina being able to do things vocally live that she doesn’t do on vocal recordings is a weird thing to have a problem with, I know. And it would be far worse if it were the reverse. But Rina needs to stop ducking out of really going for it on her studio recordings, because not everybody is going to attend one of her gigs, or dive into a YouTube rabbit hole to check out her live performances to hear the additional range that she has. She needs to treat her studio sessions like performances. And credit to Rina, there are definitely more ‘vocal moments’ on Hold the Girl than there were on Sawayama, but they are buried behind the music. Which leads to what might be one of my biggest problems with Hold the Girl.

The mixing.

Most of this album is produced by Clarence Clarity, who produced almost the entirety of Sawayama. Clarence’s production style is very dense, which makes for very full sounding songs. But sitting vocals on such productions can be difficult, because you have to balance the density of the music, with the vocals, and getting that balance right is not easy. It’s precisely why mixing is a profession, and why mixers are truly the unsung heroes of music.

The mixing was an issue for me with Sawayama, and it’s the same shit once again with Hold the Girl. It’s an improvement. But it’s tough to know if the mixing has improved or if it’s the bright rock sound, and some of the stripped down arrangements of certain songs which is doing the work. Rina’s vocals are either sat too far behind the music, or are downright drowned in the mix, to the point where I struggle to hear what Rina is singing at times. “Your Ag”, “Imagining” and the chorus to “Hurricanes” were struggles for me.

I have listened to this album on different sets of headphones, earphones, home speakers, car speakers, and it’s the same for me each time. I found that the experience of listening to the songs on headphones and earphones was where the mixing sounded the worst. Listening via other means was better. But the fact that this is even a thing is a sign that the mixing could have been better, because disparity in quality to this extreme shouldn’t exist between listening devices, regardless of the quality of these devices. Of course, some devices will sound like shit, whilst others sound better. But a good mix should still manage to sound like a good mix on everything. I don’t have this issue when listening to other albums across each of these different methods and devices.

The mixing on Hold the Girl is better than it was on Sawayama, which may actually be a result of Stuart Price’s involvement, and Clarence Clarity not helming every song. But I really need Rina to make mixing a priority on her next album. There is no point pouring your heart and soul into writing a song and singing it, and for producers to deliver such great productions, if the mixing is going to undercut everything.

Oh. And speaking of production. This is also something which fell a little short for me on a couple of songs. And this was a big surprise for me, because the production on Sawayama was so good and so tight. And I don’t get how it was a problem here given that there are more people involved; something you’d think would lead to an increased richness in the songs, versus Sawayama, where it was primarily just Clarence handling things. People crack jokes about how many producers were involved in an album like Beyonce’s Renaissance, but you can hear the result of that in the music. Same shit with Kelela’s Take Me Apart. More eyes and hands on the songs, made the sound as rich as it was. But I guess that’s how the cookie done crumbled for Hold the Girl.

The two songs on the album that made me lean back, look into the camera and ask ‘Where is the rest of the music?’ are “Hold the Girl” and “To Be Alive”. The most unfortunate choices of songs, because they pretty much open and close the album. And the album opener and closer of Sawayama happened to be THE best songs on it, which showed the girls how the fuck you open and close out an album.

“Hold the Girl” sounds like a version of the song which was done for Rina to write and put vocals to, but with the intention that more would be added to it later on…except nothing got added. I listen to this song and it just doesn’t sound as big as it should do, nor wants to. “Hold the Girl” needed big orchestral flourishes, and a really clear and audible set of strings. And as beautiful as Rina’s harmonies are during the breakdown, there really should have been a full blown choir for this part of the song. “To Be Alive” suffers in the exact same way. It sounds like an unfinished demo. There just isn’t enough to the music or Rina’s vocals for the song to feel as big as it wants to sound, and it causes the album to end on a really flat note. It’s more Taina on Nickelodeon, and Sonic video game ending theme than the big Disney movie ending it seems to want to be.

Hold the Girl opening and closing on such half-arsed notes when everything in the middle sounds so rich and complete was a choice that was made. And it’s a shame, because “Hold the Girl” and “To Be Alive” are good songs. And much like “Dynasty” and “Snakeskin”, they not only compliment each other by sharing similar musical traits, but they feel connected thematically.

Rina Sawayama stood in front of a dark grey backdrops, with a projections which looks like it could either be smoke, or the reflections of light hitting water. Rina is wearing an oversized black leather trench coat, with her hair slicked up into a Japanese-esque bun.
Rina Sawayama - Hold the Girl | © 2022 Dirty Hit

When Rina began throwing singles at us like Naomi Campbell and mobile phones on a plane, I wondered why. But as soon as I heard Hold the Girl, it made sense. Not just the frequency of the singles, but the choices. I may be wrong, but from where I’m sat, it seemed like maybe Rina and her label were concerned that people would be surprised by the album being rock heavy and sounding like a deviation from Sawayama. And that despite “This Hell” being a clear front runner for a single, it wasn’t reflective of the album whatsoever. So they threw a bunch of singles out to brace audiences for the vibe of the album. And it would have worked if the singles were better planned and they each had time to really impact radio and the charts, because the singles were good. They were just rolling out too fast. Then again, Hold the Girl charted at number 2 in the UK, so I guess it did work after all.


The singles make sense, even if the execution was wonky. But it also made me realise that not only should “This Hell” not have been a lead single, but that it should not have featured on this album at all. “This Hell” feels like a continuation of Sawayama, which woulda have been fine if that’s what Hold the Girl was sonically, but it isn’t. “This Hell” also sticks out like a sore thumb on the album, because there is no other song on the album compliment it, even though there are themes and motifs in the song which are present in other songs, such as “Holy (Til You Let Me Go)”, “Your Age” and “Send My Love To John)”.

There are a lot of strange decisions made on Hold the Girl. Some I get, and some I don’t. And it’s unfortunate that Hold the Girl follows an album which was so revered by so many, because comparisons to Sawayama are inevitable. But comparing Sawayama and Hold the Girl is as tough to do as it is easy, because they are such different bodies of work, despite there being so many things which connect the two - even down to small details like the ending of “Holy (Til You Let Me Go)” sounding the same as the ending of “Snakeskin”. But when I look at Hold the Girl as its own thing, it still feels lacking. It needed to remove a song or two. It needed a song which felt like a bridge to “Send My Love to John” so that this song didn’t feel like this lone moment on the album. Part of me likes that the album just stalls for this really minimal and intimate song. But at the same time it also feels like it needed something to lead you into it. Even if it were just an interlude.

I adore the theme of the album and the unpacking that Rina does throughout it. Rina had such a unique way of expressing her viewpoint of the world and the ways in which she deconstructed it on Sawayama, so for her to then choose to do the same for herself is bold and makes for some really great stories.

One of the best things about Hold the Girl is Rina’s honesty and how much of herself she lays bare. Rina felt like a selection of songs about the version of herself she shared online. Sawayama felt like an album based on conversations Rina had with friends. Hold the Girl feels like the album based on conversations Rina had with herself and / or her therapist. I don’t think I could give quite as much of myself as Rina did here. But I am so grateful that she did. Whilst Rina’s experiences of growing up and growing into herself is unique to her; feeling that you don’t belong, and finding solace in institutions that don’t accept you for who you are, but staying in them because to pacify your need to belong somewhere - these are all very universal things. But particularly if you are part of a community that is marginalised. Hold the Girl will resonate with a lot of people, and will go some way toward positioning Rina as the voice of a cross-section of people, and even an entire generation. Rina being a British-Japanese queer woman, it would be easy for her experience and her story to feel like so specific that it hampers its mass appeal, but Rina manages to make everything feel so tangible and identifiable, regardless of you walk of life. You may identify with the entire album, or maybe just a couple of the songs on it. But there will be a song on Hold the Girl which feels like it is speaking to you.

Hold the Girl further shows that Rina is a great story-teller, and not every songwriter is good at actually telling a good story. You could argue if somebody is even a good songwriter unless they are telling a story. And Clarence Clarity continues to be a great partner in scoring these stories for Rina. But these stories aren’t always packaged in the best way on Hold the Girl, and this is what makes me sigh when it comes to this album - because so many of its shortcomings could have been easily fixed. Just a few small changes, some tracklist revisions and some additional production could have made a world of difference and given Rina’s story the good print quality, the lush binding and the nice cover it deserved. Because we all know the cover Rina chose for this album was absolutely horrendous, but we ain’t getting into that here.

What defines Hold the Girl for me is how much it says about Rina. Not only personally through the songs, but her musical influences. Rina’s range of tastes is so broad and she is so unapologetic about it, and I adore that about her. The direct influences of this album are pretty clear. British pop and dance music of the early 90s and 2000s is evident. But Hold the Girl also has an air of Lady Gaga about it. “This Hell” sounds Gaga as… *Looks into the camera* Hell. And in fact, Hold the Girl sounds like the album that Born this Way and Joanne both kinda wanted to be. With both of those albums Lady Gaga was very much split between what she wanted to do, and what people expected of her, and it fucked up both albums. Rina at least gives less of a fuck about what people expected, to put out an album which feels whole and has a clear direction, even if it stumbles a couple of times. But another album that Hold the Girl reminds me a lot of is Grimes’ 2015 album Art Angels, which also shifted from pop to rock, and touched on the Americana sound with songs like “California” and “Scream”, just as Rina does with “This Hell” and “Send My Love to John”. “Imagining” specifically even reminds me of “Kill V Maim”. I don’t know if Grimes’ was an influence on Hold the Girl in any way, but I found the parallels between the two albums interesting. Grimes and Rina both being artists who are very protective of their music, their images and their personas, who are very plugged into all the different genres and ranges of music out there in the world. And both ended up having to contend with the pressures to deliver something in the vein of what came before, although how they arrived at their albums was for entirely different reasons. With Rina it seemed far more organic and based on what she was listening to as she was writing the album. Where-as with Grimes, the pressure to do what she did before and the mainstream success she gained as a result, is what made her categorically not want to do anything remotely similar to it.

Hold the Girl is a good album. But despite everybody saying that they think it is more mainstream than Sawayama, I actually think that Sawyama is an easier album to recommend. Because if you don’t like rock, you are not going to vibe with Hodl the Girl at all, and it would be a shame, because there are some great songs on this album. I really hope that Rina isn’t done with releasing singles, and that she isn’t adverse to releasing Hold the Girl singles a whole year from now. “Frankenstein” would make a great Halloween single. And “Forgiveness” is gorgeous, and would make a great Christmas single. Clarence could throw some bells on that shit, and Rina could put on a white fur coat and some boots to give us J-Pop Winter ballad realness in a music video.

Hold the Girl is going to be divisive. There will absolutely be fans who loved Sawayama who won’t feel as strongly about this album, and it’s understandable. Part of being a fan of an artist who has such a wide range of tastes and influences is the possibility that they are gonna drop an album which is a shift from what they did before. But I appreciate that Rina didn’t just give us Sawayama 2.0. As much as I liked Sawayama, I wouldn’t just want that all over again. And I also find the way I listen to Hold the Girl is very different to Sawayama. With Sawayama I found myself often cherry picking songs very early on, where-as with Hold the Girl I feel more compelled to listen to the whole thing, because it works better as a whole then it does as singles or cherry picks. So I guess that’s something. Many things can be said about Hold the Girl, but nobody could ever say it’s not a body of work and that it isn’t honest. But Rina and her team do need to be more aware of the finer details. Because the overlooking of these details is what is probably one of the biggest differences between this and Sawayama, and something which hurts this album.

Rina and her team do need to be more aware of the finer details. Because the overlooking of these details is what is probably one of the biggest differences between this and Sawayama, and something which hurts this album. But the magnitude of Hold the Girl and what it represents is not lost in any of the things on it that I’m not a fan of. Hold the Girl shows that Rina is no fluke. This album presents Rina as a fully fledged pop star, as opposed to somebody watching pop from the fringes as a fan, as seemed to be the case with Rina and Sawayama. Hold the Girl shows that Rina has a clear agency when it comes to what she wants to communicate and how. And whilst Hold the Girl is not a perfect album, it shows that Rina is a pop artist with a sense of purpose and a responsibility to herself. By the time the final track of Hold the Girl rolls around, it is clear that Rina has completed part of her journey of letting go of her past and reclaiming herself. But her career as a global pop star is only just beginning.

Verdict: Hold the Gurl

▪ Forgiveness 🏆
▪ Holy (Til You Let Me Go)
▪ Imagining 🔥
▪ Frankenstein 🔥
▪ Send My Love To John
▪ Phantom