After showing great potential with her 2017 EP “RINA,” Rina Sawayama has returned with her debut full-length album "SAWAYAMA" — perhaps one of the best pop records of the year so far. The debut tells the 29-year-old Japanese-British songwriter’s story in heartfelt detail, combining musical genres with impeccable vocal deliveries and refreshingly honest lyricism.
Born in Japan but raised primarily in London, Sawayama’s unique background as an Asian model, political science student at Cambridge, former member of a hip-hop music group and young groupie in the London underground music scene contributes intensely personal perspectives and sounds to the debut album — from the regret surrounding dying friendships on the karaoke-inspired “Bad Friend” to concerns regarding climate change on “Fuck This World (Interlude).”
Where “SAWAYAMA” truly shines, though, is in its varied approach to storytelling. Sawayama revisits and reimagines themes like intergenerational trauma, cultural alienation and individual empowerment, all while effortlessly mixing genres and perspectives. It would be an impressive achievement from a seasoned pro — that this is her debut is astonishing.
In the opening song “Dynasty,” Sawayama hits the ground sprinting with a bombastic stadium rock riff. Her voice soars as she explores the legacy of trauma, asking if “the pain in [her] veins is hereditary.” Later, Sawayama details the ups and downs of her teenage years on “Paradisin’,” referencing both youthful exuberance and her mother’s disapproval of her wild lifestyle. Sawayama imitates her mother’s exasperated questioning by pitching down her own voice on the track, at once acknowledging their similarity and demonstrating her tense relationship with her family. “Chosen Family,” however, reveals that while family can be a source of frustration, it can also be a place of acceptance.
With “XS,” Sawyama produces a perfect pop single reminiscent of 2000s-era Britney Spears. She does this while mocking consumerism, using harsh guitar sounds and expressing biting satire as she marches through a list of designer products and claims, “I deserve it.” The chorus culminates in a playful insistence to “Gimme just a little bit (more),” and the addictive repetition inspires the hedonistic treadmill of purchase. The track is an entertaining parody of the opulence that marked a great deal of 2000s pop and is defined by the memorable delivery and thoughtful provocation that are constant features of the record. The infomercial style music video rebukes the world she lives in, just as she hopes one of the dances she does in it goes viral on TikTok.
She discusses her uneasy relationship with Japan, a place where she feels both at home and like a stranger. In standout “Akasaka Sad,” she invokes her family name as a chant in the infectious hook, syllabically breaking it down while attributing the sadness she feels to the curse of familial depression: being a Sawayama “just like her mother and father.” The staccato cadence, the verse sung in Japanese and the shaking electronic instrumentation are high points of the record, and the explicit distance she places between herself and Akasaka is a powerful reminder that while she identifies as Japanese, she has a complex relationship with her roots.
Sawayama doesn’t spare herself from criticism. In “Tokyo Love Hotel,” for example, she acknowledges that she acts similarly to obnoxious tourists who use Japan for personal pleasure — just like the titular love hotels are used solely for sex — when she sings, “Thought I was original, but after all, I guess this is just another song ‘bout Tokyo.” On highlight track “Bad Friend,” she reminisces on a graduation trip to Tokyo and notes her flaws as a friend. The song is somehow both anthemic and regretful, with the final explosion that “I’m so good at crashing in, making sparks and shit, but then… I’m a bad friend.”
Still, “SAWAYAMA” is bold and unapologetic. “STFU!” is the most jarring track, with an unmatched nu-rock viciousness. The chorus’ sweet, subtly smiling whisper to “Shut the f— up” is a candid reaction to her experience with fetishization and anti-Asian sentiment. A maniacal, somewhat unsettling laugh skips across each verse, producing a discomfort that mirrors the reaction to such uncomfortable statements. Her poignant frustration with absurd and racially ignorant questions is a distinct foil for the record’s other pieces that focus on women’s empowerment and how to express assertiveness without being seen as enraged.
She further celebrates this idea on the chic “Comme Des Garçons (Like The Boys),” a track inspired by Beto O’Rourke’s arrogance in running for office. Embracing the power of women co-opting male group energy, Sawayama saunters through the single, mixing boastful lyrics with seductive croons and a grooving bass that dominates the song. She sing-raps about being the best thing happening in both Reno, Nev. and Meguro, Japan, demonstrating her global appeal.
This intoxicating mix of self-doubt and confidence shines through the record: Sawayama doesn’t blame anyone but herself for her personal failings. She uses her music to admit her mistakes and ask if she can be better. While she acknowledges the toil of generational trauma, “Dynasty” asks the listener to “break the chain with me.” With the stellar closer “Snakeskin,” she speaks directly to her album itself, exploring the impact of pain on music through catchy commercial pop songs. It is an intriguing question — how do you balance the authentic expression of your image and dreams with the desire to make a banger? Sawayama manages to do just that when, in “Snakeskin” alone, she incorporates the Final Fantasy IX victory theme, a Beethoven sonata and an interview with her mother.
Of course, the album is not without limitations. While the early 2000s pop spirit of the album is executed well and an enjoyable listen, it often feels slightly derivative, especially in “Paradisin’.” The stadium-rock sound and guitar work on “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” are too reminiscent of previous songs, and “Love Me 4 Me,” while assertive and fun, doesn’t bring much to the table that isn’t explored in more exciting detail on other parts of the record.
Even with these flaws, the final output is a stunning debut album that explores Sawayama’s background and themes of representation and identity with an infectious accessibility. Listening to this album for the last month has yet to exhaust me, and it is clear that Rina Sawayama has what it takes to consistently make excellent music: impeccable vocals, a great ear for throwback pop and a fondness for genre exploration.
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Most importantly, Sawayama skillfully tells her own story. On her self-titled debut, she walks us through her life with sincerity, confidence and an ability to both analyze her past and look toward the future. The artist described it best when she said, “I want to make people feel less alone.” Listening to this record feels like meeting a new friend. I hope she’s here to stay.