Album Review: On Her Debut, Rina Sawayama Is a Pop Music Visionary

Pop music is having a moment in 2020. Dua Lipa’s focused Future Nostalgia set the stage for a pure pop renaissance along with key singles from The Weeknd, Doja Cat, Selena Gomez, Troye Sivan, and ROSALÍA. For her debut album, pop visionary Rina Sawayama blends the sugary melodic structures of ’00s pop with disarmingly personal lyrics and a penchant for stadium rock that ties it all together. A masterpiece.

Rina Sawayama is the most refreshing voice that pop music has heard in years. A Japanese-British singer-songwriter, Rina gives a new definition to the terms that critics often use to laud album. Rina is able to be “personal” and “revelatory” on her record because she brings a set of experiences that are intrinsically unique to her and inherently different from the rest of her peers. Difference makes pop music exciting. But what makes pop music so illuminating is when an artist has a clear intention in the way they execute and showcase what makes them different. Rina does all of this and more on her stellar debut record. As aforementioned, she looks to the 2000s to inform her take on classic pop music. On the album’s breakout single, “XS,” Rina employs a guitar riff that recalls the heydey of Darkchild production in the late 90s and early 00s. On that track, she uses a vocal tone similar to classic Britney Spears as she delivers a smart and cheeky takedown of the greed of capitalism and wraps it all up in an easily digestible pop melody. The brash and sudden guitars add a nice edge to the track that allude to the more abrasive rock tracks further down the tracklist. “XS” is far and away the best pop song of 2020 so far. Rina’s intelligence also allows her to use classic pop music tropes to subvert the audience’s expectations by way of her lyrical content. “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys),” sees Rina using male-centric personality traits in the lyrics and blending them with sparkly dance music production to emulate a feeling of unadulterated confidence. There’s also “Tokyo Love Hotel,” a track that leans into the overarching 80s pop comeback and explores the concept of love hotels (hotels where people book rooms for casual sex) and their relationship with tourism and the impact it has on locals. Lyrically, Rina gets gritty on this album, but it never comes off as inaccessible because she knows how to use pop melodies to her advantage.

Dirty Hit

Pop music wasn’t the only genre that Rina looked to the 90s/00s for. It’s almost poetic that an unabashed pop star made several rock songs that sound more authentic than the last few albums from Billboard’s current biggest rock acts. “Dynasty,” the album’s rousing intro, is the first taste of the rock music influence. The grand and cinematic track features haunting strings, a hot guitar breakdown, and an instantly iconic bridge where Rina harmonizes with the guitar riffs like Beyoncé on “I Care.” “Dynasty” is so badass and bombastic that it evokes the imagery of Daenerys from Game of Thrones. Yes, it’s that powerful! The album’s lead single “STFU!,” was a shocking turn from the candy-coated pop stylings of Rina’s debut EP. The track leans into grunge and numetal as Rina sings about how “patience is overrated” in the face of microaggressions. The clashing guitars are already intimidating, but the lethal whispers on the hook are somehow even more menacing. Rock music also grounds the album’s best song, “Who’s Gonna Save U Now,” a rollicking stadium rock joint that packs in a classic pop strong structure, a sublime key change, and concert sound effects.

SAWAYAMA excels because Rina is addressing themes that have yet to be fully explored in the mainstream pop arena. Quite frankly, she doesn’t have time for run of the mill love songs. She would rather spend her time exalting the idea of a “Chosen Family” and offering futuristic solutions to nihilism on “F**k This World (Interlude).” On one of the album’s more sonically disparate moments, “Akasaka Sad,” Rina pulls from the Auto-Tuned melancholy of Travis Scott and rap-sings her way through an exploration of displacement by way of immigration. “Paradisin'” continues Rina’s knack for creating immersive sonic experiences by emulating the sound of arcade theme songs by using the classic ascending chord progressions of television show theme songs. There’s also a sax solo! The two ballads on SAWAYAMA also help use unconventional musical elements to sell her emotion. “Bad Friend,” for example, user a vocoder-dripping hook that intensifies the sincerity of her self-deprecation.

It cannot be overstated how exciting and refreshing Rina Sawayama is and how magnificent this album is. This is smart pop music, smart-pop if you will, and Rina has brought something fresh and simply incredible to the table. It may seem early, but SAWAYAMA has all the makings of a classic pop album. Moreover, with the interpolation of a Beethoven piece in the album’s closing track, it is clear that Rina hasn’t shown us anything near the full extent of her artistry.

Key Tracks: “Dynasty”; “XS”; “Bad Friend”; “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?”

Score: 93

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