Before her debut, Rina Sawayama was the kind of low-key singer you’d come across on Spotify and think, Holy shit, she is going to have a career. Her first EP, RINA, remains one of the best musical projects of 2017. She burst onto the scene with a fresh pop sound that was in-your-face, uniquely undiluted and over-ornate. Her writing was breathtaking, her voice was sublime and her beats were out of this world — thanks to her producer, Clarence Clarity. He brought the best out of her, and she brought the best out of him: a musical match made in heaven. There was no reason SAWAYAMA couldn’t continue the rich aesthetic of RINA and still make for an unparalleled debut. But Rina would not settle for doing what was working. Her sound was destined to be built upon further. On SAWAYAMA, it transcends.
It was clear SAWAYAMA would be something different from “STFU!,” the first left hook Rina threw back in November. The ripping nu metal track was followed in January by left hook number two, “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys),” a sleek and sexy dance pop banger that was built for the club. They weren’t just different from Rina’s music of 2017 and 2018 — they couldn’t be more different from each other. Where “STFU!” was a simultaneously hilarious, frightening and enraging attack on microaggressions, “Comme Des Garçons” put toxic masculinity through a woodchipper, shredded beneath a beefy bassline and thumping kicks. By the time “XS” dropped — a critique of overconsumption — I was certain the rest of SAWAYAMA would consist of Rina leaning into her talent for satire.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Literally every other track on the album is deeply personal. Vulnerability is nothing new to Rina, yet SAWAYAMA is especially intimate, a lens into the intricacies of Rina’s identity. Album opener “Dynasty” is a regretful reflection on Rina’s troubled childhood and her struggle to cope with her parents’ resentful relationship. Rina lays her heart bare, singing “Mother and father, you gave me life / I nearly gave it away for the sake of my sanity.” She continues to meditate on the role family plays in her identity throughout the entire record; titling it after her surname is no coincidence.
SAWAYAMA is the most Rina has ever grappled with her cultural identity over the microphone. She was born in Japan and moved to London with her family when she was five years old. On “Akasaka Sad,” written during a visit to Akasaka, Tokyo, Rina expresses feeling like she doesn’t belong in London or Tokyo, resonating with her parents’ own struggles as Japanese immigrants in London. Later, on “Bad Friend,” Rina sets the stage in Tokyo again, this time reminiscing about singing karaoke with a close friend during a fleeting summer getaway, a friend she would later fall out with. Rina revisits this Tokyo hotel setting a third time on “Tokyo Love Hotel,” a reference to Japanese hotels where rooms are paid by the hour, allowing couples a private space for sex. Here she compares foreigners’ blind idolization of Japan with a stay in a love hotel, leaving with no true appreciation or understanding of Japanese culture. But at the end of each chorus she sings, “I guess this is just another song ’bout Tokyo,” acknowledging that she herself is guilty of the same thing when she escapes to Tokyo in “Akasaka Sad” and “Bad Friend.” Her complicity in “using” Japan complicates her torn identity, and her wry self-awareness compels empathy.
Rina eschews delicacy for candor, both lyrically and sonically. “Paradisin’” is blatantly bubblegum pop, hyper-exciting, sparkly and glitzy. It’s the opening theme to a SAWAYAMA sitcom, or the soundtrack to an ’80s film montage of teen girls sneaking out to go shopping at the mall. Rina unabashedly delights in the trouble she got into as a teenager, the juicy electropop tune embracing overjoyed rebellion against her single mother. Rina sings, “Then you threaten to send me to / Boarding school for the seventh time / I know we can’t afford that, so I’m fine.” These lines are a gut punch, revealing layers of malice and immaturity in teenage Rina’s attitude toward her mother beneath the song’s bubblegum exterior.
Two thematic cornerstones of the album are “Love Me 4 Me” and “Chosen Family.” The first track deals with Rina’s struggle to love herself. The second is about the solace Rina has found in her chosen family, emphasizing an important form of interpersonal support for many queer people whose relationships with their biological families become strained or broken (Rina came out as pansexual in 2018). Unfortunately, both songs lack the lyrical depth of the rest of the album. For such heart-wrenching topics, they’re addressed with unremarkable simplicity; reading the title of each track is enough to understand the point of each song. For the most part, neither track is strong enough instrumentally or interesting enough structurally to warrant such simplicity. Despite this, “Chosen Family” is a compelling climax to the album’s overarching theme of family.
The final track, “Snakeskin,” is a feverish closer, terrifying yet beautiful, solemn yet heartracing. The metaphor of a snakeskin handbag, used and abused and destroyed, is one of the most cryptic. But at the end, it returns to Rina relating to her mother. As Rina tells Apple Music, she samples Beethoven’s “Sonata Pathétique” because it is the only song she can remember her mom playing on the piano, and a quiet sample of her mother’s own voice says in Japanese, “I’ve realized that now I want to see who I want to see, do what I want to do, be who I want to be.” Recalling Rina’s reference to her father’s infidelity on “Dynasty,” her mother as the snakeskin — used and abused and destroyed — is an intriguing thought with which to close the album.
SAWAYAMA rolls a staggering number of concepts into the complicated intersection of Rina’s identity in its 43-minute runtime. Toxic masculinity, parental rebellion, adolescent depression, microaggressions, broken households — Rina does each of them justice through her music. Interspersed within the record’s family-centric narrative is self-aware criticism of overconsumption and cultural objectification. Lyrically, there’s so much to unpack in this album that it’s almost overwhelming. By the time I’ve truly understood the depth of SAWAYAMA, the once little-known singer will be filling stadiums.