Rina Sawayama’s debut album, “SAWAYAMA,” is finally here, and lives up to the years of hype fans have accumulated towards this project. After achieving a cult following with the 2017 “Rina” EP, she began to work on branching out in new directions. “SAWAYAMA” was the result, and it was released to widespread critical acclaim.
The first single, “STFU!” is a heavy-metal rock anthem addressing the constant stereotyping she feels as a Japanese bisexual woman in the music industry. In the song, she tells her doubters, “Shut the fuck up!/Have you ever thought about taping your big mouth shut?/’Cause I have, many times, many times.” Though the verses are filled with a foot-stomping, headbanging beat, the choruses switch gears completely and are delivered in a sweeter tone, much like artist Poppy’s recent ventures into playing with juxtaposing nu-metal and pop.
“Comme Des Garçons (Like The Boys),” is a slinky dance anthem with a killer baseline, perfect for the background music to a runway in Paris. This song sounds expensive, like Sawayama is charging you $50 just to listen to it. Comme Des Garçons, a Japanese fashion brand, along with other high fashion brands are mentioned throughout the song, giving it a feeling of luxury (“Miu Miu, Prada, Mugler, Virgil, Ross, Nicola/Elevate your vision when you put me on the cover”). However, the title also gives context to Rina’s confidence, saying she’s “like the boys,” the translation of “Comme Des Garçons.” These two themes of the song take shape in the raspy raplike post-choruses, where Sawayama flaunts, “Excuse my ego, can’t go incognito/Every time you see me, it’s like winning big in Reno.”
One of the smartest songs on the record, “XS” challenges the ridiculousness of excessive consumerism over a 90s style R&B beat with rock influences as well. “Gimme just a little bit (More), little bit of (Excess) / Oh me, oh my / I don’t wanna hear (No, no), only want a (Yes, yes)” she says on the chorus, while the over-the-top cartoonish music video channels the QVC network, advertising products like “Rina water.” Sawayama completely plays into a stereotype of a celebrity paying exorbitant amounts for unnecessary products, like how Taylor Swift famously played a character based on the reputation the media gave her in “Blank Space.” The sharpest quip on the song, “Flex, when all that’s left is immaterial/And the price we paid is unbelievable,” references how corporate consumerism can lead to devastating effects, like the global climate crisis we face today.
“Dynasty,” the opening track, is to put it simply, one of the coolest songs I’ve ever heard. Chilling lyrics such as “(Anything to carry down our)/Dynasty/The pain in my vein is hereditary/Dynasty/Running in my bloodstream, my bloodstream” paired with a regal chorus and soaring background vocals makes for an intense and dramatic effect. I work up a sweat every time I listen to the post-chorus bridge, which layers Sawayama’s high notes with an electric guitar solo, eventually exploding into the last chorus. The song, much like others on the album, touches on family trauma during her teenage years. Feeling a responsibility to make sure her kids have a better life, she pleads, “Won’t you break the chain with me?” It’s a moving, forceful opening that sets the album’s tone.
If you enjoyed the sample of rock Sawayama presents on “STFU!,” look no further than “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” to see her really have fun with the genre. Against the background of a screaming audience inspired by “A Star Is Born” (2018) and its pop-rock songs, Sawayama says goodbye to the people in her life she tried to better for, only to be let down by them. “This ain’t no absolution/I needed a resolution/Good luck in your evolution,” she says as she wishes them gone. Another song experimenting with a past genre is “Love Me 4 Me,” a head-to-toe late-90s Britney Spears song, showing Sawayama’s appreciation and knowledge of pop music that came before her.
“Akasaka Sad” is a lament that plays on the name of Akasaka, a district in Tokyo that Sawayama frequently visits. Born in Japan and raised in London, she has often felt stuck between the two areas, leading to the dispiriting feeling of not belonging in either. “Akasaka sad, I guess I’ll be sad/Forever and ever and ever/Wherever I go, forever,” she admits. Like “Dynasty,” this song is about family, mentioning that Sawayama’s feelings emulate how her parents felt when they first immigrated to London. On lines like “‘Cause I’m a sucker, sucker, so I suffer/Akasaka Sawayama/Just like my mother,” her authenticity shines through.
The only real misstep on the album is “Chosen Family,” which has a nice narrative message: Growing close with someone even though you’re not related. The lyrics are so on the nose, however, throwing in every buzzword related to genetics and family (“We don’t need to be related to relate/We don’t need to share genes or a surname.”) that it begins to sound more like a parody of a ballad. There are much more powerful moments on the record despite a faster BPM, like the Zedd-inspired “Bad Friend” about a memorable night with a now-distant friend. It’s a deep, introspective look at herself after a falling out with a best friend which, Sawayama said, “made me point the mirror at myself and look at my own insecurities that make me sabotage friendships.”
The album closes with “Snakeskin,” an eclectic song that includes both a Beethoven sample and an interpolation of the Final Fantasy IX Victory Fanfare. It includes some of the most interesting and descriptive lines so far, like “Buy my exclusive, expensive, pain wear/My fine couture is your branded repayment/I tear my soul into two so that you can/P-p-p-pretend despair.” The song is likened to a snakeskin handbag, serving as a metaphor for the commercialization of music. Sawayama talks about her art coming from deep within herself and how odd it is that people can readily access, purchase, and hear her pain. It steadily increases in tempo and feels like an epic video game boss fight, a perfect ending to an album influenced by a wide variety of art forms. It’s dramatic, moving and deeply personal.
On her debut album, Rina Sawayama plays with many genres, but each is examined so meticulously it feels like she’s a jack of all trades that can go in any direction in the future. It explores culture, family, friendships, loneliness, love, fun, deep sadness and pain all in its quick 43-minute runtime, while never seeming too condensed. If anything, it’s an energizing rollercoaster ride with many turns — one that always comes back to a neat and tidy end.
Album rating: 9/10