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Cover art for Rina Sawayama's 'SAWAYAMA'
Cover art for Rina Sawayama's 'SAWAYAMA,' by Arc Justice.

Music

Rina Sawayama Flawlessly Defies Genre Boundaries With Her Debut Album: A Track-By-Track Analysis

If you’re a hardcore pop stan, you’ve most likely heard of Rina Sawayama by now. The Japanese-born singer first made waves with her debut EP Rina, in which she showcased herself as a fearless artist with the intelligence and creativity to successfully blend the best of the ’90s and noughties while creating a fresh sound, with the help of producer Clarence Clarity. From then on, she started cultivating a solid fanbase while releasing music independent, which meant self-funding through side jobs such as modelling — as seen in her epic appearance in the 2017 Versus Versace campaign.

On April 17, Rina released her debut album SAWAYAMA under Dirty Hit, the team behind acts such as The 1975 and Beabadoobee, with Clarity once again being the main producer. The project is an introspective look into Rina’s upbringing, emotions and identity as an artist. Although quite cohesive from start to finish, every track has a unique personality and stands out on its own for different reasons — which is usually difficult to find. For that reason, we have decided to make this a track-by-track review.

Rina Sawayama in the ‘SAWAYAMA’ photoshoot by Arc Justice.

DYNASTY

SAWAYAMA kicks off with a killer track. If Ari Aster’s Hereditary was turned into an anime, this is what the opening would sound like.

“Dynasty” was inspired by Rina’s parents’ divorce, and it’s a perfect intro to the album — both sonically and lyrically. This song is pure metal glam, Sawayama style, and it’s the right choice to introduce the world to her artistry.

XS

“XS” is Rina Sawayama at her finest. The album’s third single is pure satire on the mindset behind our society’s excessive consumerism. It features a dominant metal guitar and the mix of late ’90s and early ’00s that Rina has been able to perfectly master by now.

This song is all about luxury and opulence, and its strongest asset relies on its commitment to creating a character and sending a message forward that’s culturally and socially relevant to our days.

STFU!

The thrilling roller coaster we got on with “Dynasty” reaches its rage peak with “STFU!”, the first taste the fans got from this debut album back in November 2019.  This was Sawayama’s first delve into the nu-metal genre, and although back then, the song might have surprised some, it feels like a natural step in her sonic evolution.

With a runtime of 3 minutes and 24 seconds of pure mania, this track serves as Rina’s way to raise the middle finger at the racism she’s had to endure by those who feel the constant need to stereotype Asian women. Once again, we’re witnesses of her particular way to use irony in her music — and the message is very clear: “why don’t you just sit down and shut the f—k up?!” The video, directed by Ali Kurr and Rina Sawayama herself, is one of her best and encompasses exactly what the song wants to portray in all its Tarantino-esque glory.

Comme Des Garçons (Like The Boys)

After paying a little visit to a Kill Bill-esque world with “STFU!,” we’re headed towards the club in “Comme Des Garçons”. With a return to pure pop bangers, this track shows Rina at her most confident self and solidifies its place as one of the most empowering tracks of her discography.

We’ve seen a lot of pop stars influenced by the disco sound in the past year such as Dua Lipa and The Weeknd, but Rina’s vocals and her interpretation of the badass we all know she is easily allow her to stand out. While this track might not be the best in the record, it’s a break from the first three’s frenzy while being quite “in-your-face.”

Akasaka Sad

“Akasaka Sad” is just another page on this book about Rina’s personal history — which is exactly why she’s the sole songwriter on it. As someone born in Japan and raised in the UK, Rina tells us about her struggles with not feeling like she belongs anywhere, which makes for a very interesting contrast with its fierce production in the hands of Clarity.

This track is definitely one of the highlights of the album, the chorus is absolutely infectious. It continues the narrative that started back in the first track. By this song, we have to point out Rina’s remarkable ability to tell a tale and explore diverse topics that may not be relatable to all listeners and still keep it interesting. You don’t have to have experienced immigration to understand what she’s portraying, and I dare you to find someone who doesn’t feel captivated by this melody.

Paradisin’

The sixth track on the album takes us further into the stories of Rina’s youth, but this time our sonic setting is different: we’re in a bubbly Nintendo game. This song is one of the most euphoric on the record, giving us a perfect soundtrack to a future road trip in the summertime — and definitely the most nostalgic, with lyrics evoking a time when MSN Messenger and Avril Lavigne ruled the entire world.

“Paradisin'” is wholesome, fun, and perhaps an early reply to the question of when Rina will give us a crazy hyper-pop anthem. It should be noted that this is the first time on the record where a saxophone takes the main stage, in a perfect pop bliss moment right before the last chorus.

Love Me 4 Me

Baby, I’ve been telling you // If you can’t love yourself // How are you going to love somebody else?” are the RuPaul-inspired opening lines of “Love Me 4 Me.” At this point, self-love pop songs have been done and re-done to death with the same premise of embracing your differences. However, this track simply feels different — perhaps due to the fact that Rina is not speaking to the audience, but to the mirror or because this is a natural follow-up to Rina’s stories focused around her dilemmas and plights, which makes it not feel forced.

The New Jack Swing-style production on this song sets it as the perfect companion to ‘Paradisin” inside the tracklist and makes for a great anthem to sing at the top of your lungs while dancing in the shower. The fact that a nu-metal track about stereotypes and a pure pop song about self-love can fit in the same project so perfectly is living proof of Sawayama’s creativity and versatility that make her the star she is.

Bad Friend

“Bad Friend” starts by painting a very specific picture: Rina’s super fun 2012 trip to Tokyo with an old friend, which involved karaoke and getting drunk. However, by the time the first chorus breaks in, she switches it up and we realize what the song is really about.

While it is not difficult to find vulnerability in music in general, this track stands out for the fact that Rina is calling herself out on specific flaws. “Bad Friend” may not hold a candle to other tracks on the album regarding production, but it stands out by being one hell of a relatable song: we’ve all been bad friends, bad lovers, bad sons and daughters.

The bridge of this song features a choir to make for a perfectly dramatic climax, and the overall result is as simple as it is wonderful. While it doesn’t really lack anything in particular, I think I speak for everyone when I say we need a Carly Rae Jepsen remix ASAP.

F*ck This World (Interlude)

As we’ve seen in Halsey’s Manic and The Weeknd’s After Hours, long interludes are slowly becoming more popular in the industry. ‘F*ck This World’ is another track filled with social commentary, as the lyrics read: “F—k this world, I’m leaving // Sick of what you people taking // From the bottom to feed the top // F—k this world, it’s dying.

Although the song is written from a place of disillusion about our current society, it leaves the message that just maybe we’re not doomed yet. Overall, the track’s production is quite clean and well-executed — especially at the end, when it samples Rina’s 2017 track “Take Me As I Am” — and the intention behind the song couldn’t possibly be clearer.

Who’s Gonna Save U Now?

From the moment this track begins, we’re instantly taken to one of Rina Sawayama’s incredible live shows by hearing the people chant her name. Inspired by the Academy-Award nominated films Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born, the tenth track on this album is a middle finger to everyone who the singer has ever supported and turned their back on her.

As an absolutely epic anthem with a sickening bridge, “Who’s Gonna Save U Now” is without a doubt, one of the best songs on the record. The instruments along with Rina’s vocals make for yet another marvelous combination, and it’s safe to say it will make for astounding live performances.

Tokyo Love Hotel

Sonically, “Tokyo Love Hotel” is the synth-pop banger this album didn’t need but certainly benefits from. Lyrically, it’s one of the most interesting songs on the album.

While in the beginning, the song may seem like it was written for a lover that Rina wants to have all to herself, it’s actually about her connection with her hometown and the desire to not see its soul taken away by tourists who feel attracted to the culture but won’t give it the respect it deserves.

This track is a captivating read on fetishization and appropriation, and it also includes a brief moment of self-questioning when Rina sings “I guess this is just another song ’bout Tokyo.” Overall, it’s another highlight perfectly crafted by Clarity that lets us take a look into the singer’s mind for a few minutes.

Chosen Family

“Chosen Family” is the only ballad on the album, an anthem to otherness inspired by the unity within the LGBTQ+ community that the singer is a part of. This is one of the moments in which Rina’s voice shines the most, while the production — which includes a show-stopping guitar solo in the bridge — is not left behind.

It’s pretty difficult not to get emotional while listening to this one. Even if it’s an intentional love letter to queer folks, who often find themselves separated from their biological families due to lack of acceptance and end up finding a home in their community, this is also a song for everyone who’s ever felt different and ended up finding that one person or group they could rely on to feel understood, a song about joint perseverance through the hard times.

I, for one, am glad to have someone like Rina as a spokesperson for the LGBTQ+ community. There’s no doubt in my mind that this song will be a part of her legacy and will stick with lots of us for many years to come. It is, by lack of a better word, a true anthem.

Snakeskin

“Snakeskin” is simply insane. If Rina Sawayama is ever asked to do a song to introduce a Disney villain, this would be the result.

With a brief intro that showcases Rina’s heavenly vocals, experimental production with a Final Fantasy sample, an addictive melody and a piano moment for the big finale, the album is undoubtedly ended on a high note with “Snakeskin.”

SAWAYAMA is presented to us as an album — but it might as well be a book, a film, or a video game. At this point, Rina Sawayama and Clarence Clarity have well proven that they’re one of the strongest duos in the pop scene. Their ability to create an entire world for the listener based on music is astounding, and there were a lot of stakes in the making of this album taking into account that Sawayama’s debut EP defined a specific sound for her and set a very high standard. While this album could’ve been an unsuccessful attempt at recreating previous triumphs, it showed a brand new, more personal side of the artist with tales that are just as captivating as the ones she had previously told.

It’s mind-boggling to think that this is just the beginning of Rina Sawayama. In less than 7 years she’s delved into many genres and their infinite combinations, and she’s constantly been successful at creating a sound that’s reminiscing of the past yet undeniably a part of the future. It goes without saying that this is one of the best projects we’ve had this year and a must-listen for everyone who finds a passion in groundbreaking, innovative projects. In this debut album, we had a deep look into Rina’s past — and it was a great way to start building her future.

You can now listen to SAWAYAMA  on all streaming platforms.

Featured Image by Rina Sawayama and Dirty Hit, taken by Arc Justice.

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Written By

Federico Bongiorno is a 20-year-old from Argentina who's deeply in love with pop culture, politics and people.

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