People who are constantly around me know that I identify myself as a snob when it comes to music. I take pride in discovering artists (hello, Dua Lipa, *cough*) before they go big, and scold them when they dismiss music I share with them only to fangirl over them a few months down the line when they become hits. Yeah, I’m a little annoying.
Rina Sawayama, the up and coming Japanese-born British singer-songwriter, has built a rabid fanbase, in no small part thanks to her brilliant debut album, SAWAYAMA, which was released in April 2020, in the height of lockdown. Although consistently growing her fanbase, which includes the legendary Elton John who has gone on record to name SAWAYAMA as his favourite album of the year, she has not yet reached the popularity that a lot of her contemporaries have. However, I am a firm believer that for Rina, the only way is up.
SAWAYAMA doesn’t quite have an overarching concept, however I think it would be a valid assessment to say that there is running social commentary throughout the album. For instance, ‘XS’ (a pun for ‘excess’) is a faux-‘flex song’ which criticises commercialism. What a Marxist anthem. I believe it would also be fair to say that the most prominent themes throughout the album are heritage and identity. Not only do various songs heavily refer to Japan and her Japanese roots lyrically, they also gorgeously tie in to her British upbringing, resulting in deeply personal, honest songwriting.
One of the things that makes SAWAYAMA special is the seamless way different genres have been blended within each individual song. Banging rock guitars bleed into smooth R&B beats not only from track to track, but within individual songs. Amazingly, no song on the album ends up sounding out of place, and the overall project is incredibly cohesive. Although Rina’s songwriting and delivery play an important part in making this album the juggernaut it is, it is the production that truly elevates it through genre-bending, mind-melting choices that are in equal parts confusing and brilliant.
Although the album is outstanding throughout, ‘XS’, ‘STFU!’ and ‘Chosen Family’ are perhaps some of the more immediately attention-grabbing tracks on the album. Further, the opening and closing tracks of the album, ‘Dynasty’ and ‘Snakeskin’, are also nothing short of brilliant. ‘Dynasty’ is the thesis statement of the album, both thematically and sonically. As it’s guitar solo kicks in, you know you are in for something special. ‘Snakeskin’ ensures that the album closes on an energetic note following the relatively more traditional (albeit beautifully penned and extremely heartfelt), slower paced ‘Chosen Family’. It leaves the listener fully satisfied yet wanting more.
All in all, SAWAYAMA is a brave, borderline genius effort from the Cambridge graduate songstress. The album has been critically hailed as ‘compelling’ and Rina has been labelled as ‘one of the boldest voices in pop today’. If this record is any indication, I am firmly standing my ground in my belief that the only way for Rina is up, and she is already on her way.
Album by: Rina Sawayama
Top tracks: XS; Chosen Family; Snakeskin
For fans of: FKA twigs, Alanis Morisette
Run time: 44 mins