Rina Sawayama serves up pop delights on debut LP ‘SAWAYAMA’

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

Rina Sawayama is establishing her title of pop princess with her debut album, SAWAYAMA, released April 17. An eclectic mix of things from everything beloved about 2000s pop to sounds as rattling as nu metal, SAWAYAMA is a welcome smorgasbord of starkly different musical styles that each have a solid place on the record. It’s an album full of nostalgia, but also an incredibly modern tale of a girl embracing her identity.

Sawayama starts off with soft but jarring introductions to herself on “Dynasty” and “XS.” Delving into topics such as intergenerational pain and the idea of everything in moderation, these two tracks set the scene for SAWAYAMA as an unapologetic ode to the struggles that have shaped the artist. She channels pop with her voice, but adds in unexpected guitar licks to keep listeners guessing.

Then, she kicks into high gear with the electrifying “STFU!” The song is inspired by the microaggressions Sawayama has experienced as a Japanese-British individual in London, and the singer brings the full force of her frustrations and pushbacks. The angry metal riffs and urgent vocals contrast with the way she softly says “Shut the f–k up,” but her message is still heard loud and clear. Sawayama also shows her vocal range on this track, delivering gentle lyrics, screams and laughs in a harmonic manner.

“Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys)” is similarly high-energy, but turns to an R&B, disco-inspired background that hints at her 2017 EP RINA. If any song on the record best encompasses Sawayama’s message of owning your identity, it’s this one. Backed by a heavy club beat, “Comme des Garçons” is the epitome of defiance, confidence and class, with regard to Sawayama not only as a singer-songwriter, but also as a person.

Her buttery voice is soothing but intense in the way she delivers emotionally packed lines. From musing on her parents’ experience in London upon emigrating from Japan in “Akasaka Sad” to her raw, relatable times “singing our hearts out to Carly” in “Bad Friend,” she never fails to weave a complex story that listeners have no trouble understanding.

Genre-wise, Sawayama shows her versatility, as well as her ability to make her songs tap into personal places for each listener. “F–k This World” is less than three minutes long, but still somehow feels like a lifetime as she sings, “If I leave, then maybe I can start again.” The song fits seamlessly into the record’s composition, but emits a completely different energy from the rest of the album.

“Chosen Family” begins to wrap up Sawayama’s fiery start, switching the note to a tender one. She sings, “We don’t need to be related to relate/ We don’t need to share genes or a surname.” She comes to terms with her identity struggle, preaching acceptance for all. This theme segues perfectly into the EDM-tinged final track “Snakeskin,” a last cry from the artist before she breaks free from the past and grows into a new, mature version of herself. “Strip strip, strip strip, strip strip,” croons Sawayama, her last sentiments before transformation.

SAWAYAMA is like a wave, peaking in intensity and relaxing in introspection. This record commands attention. From the surprise saxophone on “Paradisin’ ” to the fuzzy guitar solo on “Love Me 4 Me,” there isn’t ever a dull moment. Just when listeners settle into a comfortable pop groove, Sawayama switches it up by adding genre-fluid flairs. But she never overdoes it; her voice is a clear, melodic constant, her tone perfect for the variety of backbeats throughout her record. Sawayama is nothing less than a star, and she is well aware of her prowess. SAWAYAMA proves she knows exactly what she’s doing, all while being dynamically herself.

Pooja Bale covers music. Contact her at [email protected].