Review Summary: The many voices of Rina Sawayama: a pop triumph born from conflicted roots.
More than any other recent album I can recall, Sawayama
captures the necessity and discomfort of balancing separate parts of a compound identity when all of them seem to be pulled in separate directions by separate forces. It’s frank, slick, catchy, smart, fiercely contemporary, and accessible enough to qualify as something your non-netizen friends could (and should) be recommending you in the near future.
It’s a triumph.
This took me by surprise. I was late to the party for Rina Sawayama’s 2017 debut EP RINA
, and it never struck me as anything outright special. This is perhaps a little harsh, yet while that release’s shiny hooks landed well within each track, they were a little short of wider resonance the moment your headphones came off. More importantly, it required its audience to dig a little to get to the root of its themes, and even then its scope was confined to relatable yet unrelevatory observations of social media pitfalls and a brisk account of the invisibility of Asian pop artists in the UK. These are topics, but not borne out on the record with anything close to the weight Sawayama would articulate in interviews. No sleight on RINA
; it’s a decent, easily enjoyable outing, but not an obvious springboard for greatness.
This is just one of the reasons why Sawayama
is such a gamechanger.
Perhaps the most unfortunate part of RINA
is that it failed to reflect many of its creator’s most interesting qualities. However you triangulate them from her cross-cultural background, her successful modelling career and, as of now, her musical output, Rina Sawayama calls on many voices where many artists struggle to find one. She is well-placed to speak to a range of discrete demographics: as a queer voice, as an immigrant voice, as a voice both submerged in and empowered by social media, as a voice of the kind of modern Oxbridge graduate keener to rewind that institution’s political impact than to step into its privilege, as a voice of confidence, a voice of pride, and a voice self-reproach, and - above all - as an independent East Asian voice in a scene with no extant category as such. This latter, together with her childhood of troubled integration in London courtesy of an unapologetically Japanese mother and the early divorce of her parents, stands as the figurehead of the album’s themes and grounds it in resolutely personal territory.
Perhaps this is steering a little closer to the pop of identity politics and circumstance than some will prefer. However, the cinch behind Sawayama
’s excellence, and the reason it improves so clearly from RINA
, lies in how the many voices of Rina Sawayama thrive less on the specifics of her platform than on the vibrancy and immediacy of her performance. On paper, I would struggle to pinpoint many personal points of alignment with Sawayama in specific detail, yet the open-hearted immediacy with which she shares her experience circumvents this. We don’t need to be related to relate
indeed. She lives herself out perlocutionarily, embracing an impressive unity of lyricism and performance that sees each side reinforcing the other. This is immediately apparent in the surging opener “Dynasty”, which posits upbringing and heritage as incontrovertible facets of selfhood (The pain in my vein is hereditary
) while championing a stance of personal self-fashioning (And if that's all that I'm gonna be, would you break the chain with me?
). The tension between the former’s deep roots and the latter’s ardent resolve is the driving force behind many of these tracks - and by driving
, I mean that “Dynasty” kicks in with more clout than anything previously released under Sawayama’s name, boasting momentous verses and a towering chorus brimming with desperation. The sense of stakes in this song is abundantly apparent, and so, by extension, is the personal force in Sawayama’s voice throughout the album. That act of identity triangulation I mentioned overhead? She’s living it out right here, and it raises the album’s scope from slick catchiness to an outright knockout. Pop for Rina Sawayama has finally become a natural medium for the kind of discourse she expresses so clearly in interviews, and so “Dynasty” marks the first of many flooring moments to come.
Many of the album’s shrewdest moments continue to align its lyricism with its presentation. “Akasaka Sad” is foremost in this regard, capturing a feeling of unease with its hip-hop beats and syncopated chorus. The song outlines Sawayama’s trip to Japan, aimed at reconnecting with her parents while working on the record. As such, her identities seem to blur here, separating in distinct English and Japanese verses, delivered in respectively slurred and machine-gun phrasings that will likely be alienating for anyone who doesn’t hold either as a first language. However, the song’s masterstroke comes in the way it blurs both language and phrasing in a dizzying chorus so monosyllabic and, crucially, monophthongal (there are no compound vowel sounds in Japanese) in which both the English and Japanese articulations sound uncomfortably tangled and largely estranged from their natural voicings.
There’s no need to look far for further examples of this kind of writing. “Comme des Garçons”’ satirical take on confidence as a male virtue finds itself anchored in an appropriately big dick disco groove, while “Paradisin’”’s childhood reminiscence is recounted with the vocabulary of ditsy bitpop. And then there’s “Bad Friend”’s nostalgic account of losing track of a friendship that peaked singing our hearts out to Carly, sweat in our eyes
. This finds itself taking a few apt pages out of Ms. Jepsen’s playbook, with a pinch of XCX in her delivery. The same goes for “Tokyo Love Hotel”, which decks the experience of being stereotyped as a Japanese artist in the wryly cliched tones of quote-unquote neon synth-pop; the sarcasm of through-line I guess this is just another song about Tokyo
finds itself steeped in retro shimmer. It’s catchy and subtly caustic without being outright bitter; Sawayama is not prone to sugarcoating her tracks, but neither does she indulge in any predominantly negative impulses for the most part. The album is conflicted at points and angry at others, but it’s too vibrant to be an outright downer. This is particularly apparent on “Love Me 4 Me”, which wraps the notion of potentially problematic self-fashioning for romantic convenience into one of the album’s best lines (You wanna love me for me / If I made it easy
) and drops it alongside the hugest get-off-your-chair-and-fuckin’-dance groove you’ll hear from any artist this year. Ambivalent, maybe, but also irresistible.
The final standout in the realm of style-substance fusion is the early standout track “XS”, a warped ode to tasteless consumerism. This one’s verses orbit a minor-key acoustic guitar hook that nods to salsa, only to lurch into a descending run of club-footed metal chords for each transition bar. This, in conjunction with the layered call-and-response chorus vocals, captured the titular excess with flair and commotion. The track feels contemporary in its chopping- and- skewing; ill-fated comparisons with Poppy’s I Disagree
will likely be made here. Unlike that album however, “XS” feels smart and comprehensive rather than self-explanatory trend-bait. The nu-metal anthem “STFU!” fares dramatically less well, a sluggish riff turning Sawayama’s blunt retorts to racist microaggressions into an active deadweight short of the punch they clearly warrant. It plays its role in sequence yet stands out as a clear weak link. Thankfully, the album’s foray into pop metal lives and dies within these two tracks.
It’s interesting that the album’s other dubious moment comes from the far end of its stylistic spectrum. I think “Chosen Family” has a good song buried within it somewhere, one very much warranted by its moving tribute to queer community, but despite a serviceable set of chords and an ostensibly heartfelt performance from Sawayama it falls short somehow. Remarkably for an album with more than a few well-gauged appropriations of old school synthpop, Danny L Harle’s production feels like the most dated contribution on show. While they seemed fresh and organic on Caroline Polachek’s Pang
last year, his trademark synths sound oddly passé here and the rest of his arrangement fails to elevate Sawayama’s voice to the heights it seems to reach for. Nothing ever seems so obsolete as lapsed trends of the recent past, and so the degree to which Harle finds himself overshadowed by enigmatic wunderkind Clarence Clarity’s work across the album bodes ominously. As its primary producer, Clarity proves an apt fit for the album’s stylistic mishmash; every song here comes from a distinct place in the pop landscape, though lines could be drawn between “Bad Friend” and “Tokyo Love Hotel”. Sawayama, Clarity, and other associated producers whose names do not retain a middle initial do themselves proud here; not only does the album hold its eclecticism together, but it comes off with enough confidence that the occasional dud is easy to dismiss in its wake.
Reaching for the word ’important’ is usually enough to make me wince, but it’s a must for this one. Sawayama
is perhaps the first clear-cut pop album of serious importance to come out of the Anglosphere this year. It’s an important complement to the deceptively zany image of a multicultural UK you’ll get from the likes of Kero Kero Bonito or any other optimistic London act; it’s important in how it stems partly from Sawayama’s critique of Japanese womanhood, chiming with a significant minority of that country’s artists of the moment (Seiko Oomori, Samezame etc.); it’s an important touchstone for anyone who’s ever had a foot in the door of two different cultures but a strong foothold on neither; it will be very important for those who like their pop with a pinch of postcolonial theory. No more or less than any of this, it’s an assertive showcase of contemporary production stylings, innovations and retro-isms alike, supporting a towering set of great hooks. Sawayama
is accordingly infectious, a quality its sequencing and performance embrace with self-awareness: by the end of the album’s “Dynasty”’s stoney claims of immutable bloodlines have given way to a triumphant victory lap on “Snakeskin.” The titular metaphor could not be more obvious; as Sawayama holds up her self-fashioning as an addictive source of empowerment, the chances are we’re raising our arms along with her - and if a hallmark of great music isn’t uniting people from disparate ends, I don’t know what is.