Rina Sawayama: Sawayama (Dirty Hit) Review | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, May 31st, 2020  

Rina Sawayama

Sawayama

Dirty Hit

Apr 30, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


It seems that the millennial generation has officially reached the point of nostalgia for the music of their youth. So far in 2020, we have seen pop auteurs such as Poppy and Grimes going back to the sounds of the early 2000s and recontextualizing them for today. In some ways, the debut full-length album from Rina Sawayama falls into this mold with sounds that reference nu metal, Brittney Spears-era pop, and Timbaland’s R&B production. Yet Sawayama goes even further by taking these nostalgic touchstones and imbuing them with her own heritage, personality, and experiences, resulting in a thoroughly fresh and modern voice in the world of pop.

The influence of the Y2K pop charts on Sawayama becomes readily apparent early on in the album. The opener, “Dynasty” starts on shimmering pop but throws in blasts of mosh pit ready guitars that recall Evanescence while Sawayama herself displays a powerhouse vocal performance. Although it may be her first studio album, “Dynasty” proves Sawayama is already stadium ready. Later, “STFU!” further explores this nu metal style, bringing Korn-esque guitar riffs to the forefront. Just when the anger in the lyrics boils over into the chorus, it turns into a pop kiss-off. Sawayama puts the song’s racist subject in their place, coyly instructing them to “Shut the fuck up.” Sawayama brings these influences together with modern production touches, often courtesy of Clarence Clarity, such as the trap flavoring on “Snakeskin” or Carley Rae Jepsen style synth pop on “Bad Friend.”

Yet genre-bending pop experiments only carry an album so far. The true star of the album is Sawayama herself. She fills the songs here with her own past, fears, and upbringing making the album, at its best, unmistakably her own. On several tracks, Sawayama draws upon her Japanese heritage and experience as an immigrant raised in London. “Akasaka Sad” relates her feelings of alienation towards Japan, while “Tokyo Love Hotel” criticizes the fetishization of Japanese culture by Western tourists.

What is more, Sawayama in no way excuses herself from critique. “Tokyo Love Hotel” also questions her own relationship to Japan as someone raised in the West, musing, “Thought I was original, but after all/I guess this is just another song ‘bout Tokyo.”  Elsewhere, on “Bad Friend” she acknowledges her own shortcomings and failures in her personal relationships. Sawayama still keeps up the joyous energy that drives the album, though, rarely letting the pace of the album dip low. Furthermore, subtle touches throughout, such as “Snakeskin” interpolating the Final Fantasy victory theme, show a nostalgic love for the culture of the millennium that goes beyond just the music.

Where the album generally falters is when Sawayama’s personality is muted. She draws on so many chaotic influences throughout that Sawayama relies upon her writing to give it its own identity. It does this best in the first half, but the second half sometimes falls short. While the New Jack Swing groove on “Love Me 4 Me” is likable, the song comes off as too much of a generic self-love anthem. Similarly, “Chosen Family” has a soulful melody and vocal performance, but ends up crossing the line from sincere to cheesy. The lyrics about finding your own family amid struggle come off as in the same vein of platitude-filled empowerment ballads like Katy Perry’s “Roar” or Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.” While the song is certainly a cut above those tracks, it still feels lacking in Sawayama’s distinctive personality and wears out its appeal somewhat on repeated listens.  

On Sawayama, yesteryears’ pop music becomes more than just some chart hits. Rina Sawayama uses it as a tool to contextualize her memories, experiences, and heritage. Taken all together, the album is a complicated picture of Swayama’s past, present, and future. It is rare to see a debut album with such a fully realized voice and vision behind it. What’s more, she exorcises her personal demons amid some of the year’s best dancefloor-filling pop. (www.rina.online)

Author rating: 7.5/10

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Average reader rating: 9/10



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