UK singer Rina Sawayama’s mini-album RINA is conspicuously missing from the 2017 editions of those top-50 album lists every major publication puts out at the end of each year: Not Pitchfork, not Rolling Stone, not NPR, Billboard, SPIN, Consequence of Sound, nothing. Maybe it’s just a side effect of writers on mainstream outlets only listening to mainstream music. I can’t really knock them for it. I didn’t listen to RINA myself until it started picking up steam almost a year later, but it quickly cemented itself as one of my favorite records ever. So I wonder if, when Rina eventually (inevitably) skyrockets into pop superstardom, those same critics will go back and retroactively cite it as one of 2017’s best albums.
I call Rina’s superstardom inevitable because there is no keeping talent that enormous under wraps for long. Her songwriting puts a spotlight on some seriously relevant shit right from the get-go, with the hilariously titled “Ordinary Superstar” calling out celebrities that pretend to be normal people through a highly curated performance on social media. Her woke lyricism on the ordinary superstar phenomenon pairs well with her own rise to fame. She brings this same savvy wit when she sings on everything from East Asian media fetishization to the anxiety of face-to-face interaction in the digital era. No subject is safe when Rina is shredding it in song. What other pop artist can so deftly discuss the pressure on marginalized identities and sexualities — Rina is a Japanese immigrant to the UK and identifies as pansexual — while still making every song a total slapper?
My most personal connection to the writing on RINA comes on the song “10-20-40.” It delves into Rina’s experience with antidepressants, specifically citalopram (as identified in her interview with The Guardian), a drug prescribed in dosages of 10, 20 or 40. Her lyrics speak to my own experience taking citalopram with startling precision: “Wanted to feel you but I’m numb / Don’t even realize who I’ve become.” Most unsettling is the way she captures such a specific, hard-to-explain experience of citalopram, something only another SSRI-taker could understand. I felt misunderstood, yet at the same time, I couldn’t find clarity in my own feelings. “See they don’t understand / Don’t know who I am / But do I?” brings to life that paradoxical sense of self-misunderstanding.
There’s a sweeping connection in the image Rina paints on “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome,” a pithy song title that invokes a psychological trauma in her relationship with social media. Such an invocation is not uncalled for: An endless pool of scholarly sources show just how much social media users feel like shit when they use social media but we keep doing it. It’s a disturbing and anxiety-inducing subject — I wrote a ten-page term paper on the dystopia that is social media, so naturally, I was intrigued when I saw “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome” show up on my Spotify. Rina pulls listeners in with a vivid oral illustration — “Girl in the corner / Stirring her soda / Biting the shit out of her straw” — then amps the track up with a quaking drop to the chorus. It’s gorgeous and sticky and addictive and that beat drop feels like a blast of dopamine to the brain, probably not unlike what actually happens in our heads when we are validated on social media.
From the very first time I heard “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome,” something about Rina’s music felt incredibly close to home, like overnight nostalgia. It was only just last month when the synaptic connection finally struck: RINA is caked in the influence of Japanese pop icon Utada Hikaru, an inspiration so clear in Rina’s ’90s-R&B-vibe voice that the Utada superfan in me felt stupid for not noticing it before. (Sure enough, the day after my realization, Rina tweeted about meeting Utada for the first time.) I don’t think Rina ever eclipses Utada’s superhuman singing talent — Heart Station remains unrivaled in that regard — but Rina has an ace up her sleeve.
A reflection on RINA wouldn’t be complete without crediting Clarence Clarity, a mysterious and mostly anonymous UK musician whose experimental solo material seems stolen from an elevated plane of existence. His bizarre brilliance will inevitably be a future subject of my own over-analysis, and I will probably only scratch the surface of his wicked musical wizardry. For now, it’s enough to know that his creativity shines just as strong beneath Rina’s vocals. Her smooth diva performance glows over Clarence’s cosmic beats. If I were to inappropriately compare his production on RINA to a natural wonder of the United States, I would compare it to none other than Crater Lake in Oregon: Pretty and shiny on the surface, with layers upon layers of depth beneath it (The retro-textured beat on “Alterlife” is surely 1,949 feet deep). Clarence left his glitchy footprints all over RINA — fellow UK producer HOOST produced “Tunnel Vision” and “Through The Wire Interlude,” and the two collaborated for “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome,” but the rest of the album is all Clarence. As long as Rina has his Midas touch backing her up, she is going places.
It’s a mystery to me how Rina can be so full of wit in her writing, and how she managed to connect with an enigmatic musical savant-like Clarence Clarity, but thank the Lord that she is a goddess with the pen and she did make a match in heaven with one of the most interesting producers in the game. RINA is a tongue-in-cheek take on the digital landscape’s destruction of interpersonal relationships. It’ll stay relevant until society overthrows its cyber oppression, a revolution I have no faith in, so RINA might just be — dare I say it — a timeless record.