Blending elements of rock, pop, alternative and RnB; Rina Sawayama's debut album is a force of unrivalled glory.
Simply put, Rina Sawayama’s self-titled debut album, SAWAYAMA, is just as bold and audacious as its capitalised name would have you assume. Nothing short of phenomenal, Sawayama offers an album that blends both English and Japanese musical elements with fierce feminism, captivating lyrics and catchy tunes; culminating in one of the best debut albums of any artist’s career.
The album opens with ‘Dynasty’, a song that starts off slow and melodic before building with a fierceness of attitude. Subverting its purposefully more generic and traditional start, Sawayama switches the genre of music as it launches into a stylised brand of rock accompanied with an electric guitar and some backing drums. It’s a song about claiming your narrative and breaking away from family and the subsequent struggles and pain. Yet, Sawayana doesn’t take solace in the pain but channels it through her music, embodying its vitalising effect and bringing about a ferocity and strength that appears continually throughout the album in songs like ‘STFU!’ and, my personal favourite, ‘Who’s Gonna Save U Now?’. ‘STFU!’ is the album’s heaviest rock track which culminates in a juxtaposition between verse and chorus. As the song rocks through its verse of heavy guitar sounds and strong drum beats, Sawayama’s voice is washed in contrast but preaches lyrics with an angered statemented flare of respect and equality. However, as the chorus starts and the drums and electric guitar fade away in place for some piano chords and a few percussion instruments, Sawayama’s message of ‘Shut the F**k Up’ takes the song home and makes its message stand out, perfectly paired with the context of the intro to its accompanying music video. It demonstrates a sense of personality the flows throughout the album and helps create a feeling that we’re starting to get to know the singer. Then you have the pseudo-live track of ‘Who’s Gonna Save U Now?’, which continues with those rock-orientated sounds but also demonstrates some powerhouse vocals and lyrics, reeking with a sentiment of revenge and superiority as well as continuing that no-nonsense attitude that gives this album an added depth and flare. It creates an image of a strong female in an authoritative position that doesn’t seem to compromise the fun that happens around the music.
Then you have tracks like ‘XS’, ‘Tokyo Love Hotel’ and ‘Love Me 4 Me’, which centre on Sawayama’s earlier RnB influences like that of Mariah Carey and the early-pop stylings of Britney Spears. With ‘XS’ currently the most popular single on the album, it’s not hard to see why with its quirky blend of different musical elements. Swapping the majority of those heavy-rock pangs with more acoustic stylings, it starts in a bizarrely unique mixture of sounds and instruments before a few chords of that signature guitar launches her into a Spears-styled song. Teaming with personality and boppy riffs, ‘XS’ launches itself on the materialistic world and has us questioning what price is too much while all the time expressing a need to have you dance along with it (plus it’s another music video that has unmistakable Sawayama charm to it). ‘Tokyo Love Hotel’ and ‘Love Me 4 Me’ are the more mainstream RnB tracks that evoke reminiscences of the earlier days of Mariah Carey’s career. Still, these influences are not copycatted, instead, merged with Sawayama’s own unique musical charm that gives them some added personality and charm while emphasising Sawayama’s brand of music.
Included throughout the album are throwbacks to earlier days and “easier” times, summed up perfectly in Sawayama’s fun tracks ‘Comme des garçons (Like The Boys)’ and ‘Paradisin”. Dubbed as a “homage to early 2000s dance track”, ‘Comme des garçons (Like The Boys)’ references Japanese fashion house while parodying the confidence of men and fashion. With lyrics like, “excuse my ego, can’t go incognito” and “Yeah, oh, girl, it’s okay, you should never be ashamed to have it all”, there’s an undeniable playfulness that Sawayama flirts with while also fronting the confidence she feels for herself. ‘Paradisin’ then has this 8-bit musical charm that pays homage to teenage rebellion and freedom all the time celebrating the reckless fun of being young. It’s a song where listeners will derive much of their own meaning from it without being caught up in any sentimental dullness that is often seen songs reminiscing of nostalgic times. It encapsulates the fierceness that seems to have followed Sawayama into her musical career and shakes off any associations of a “good-girl” persona anyone may wrongly attach to her while resisting ethic-based stereotypes wrongly attached to her.
However, the album is made up of much more than individual songs, all the tracks complementing each other in a truly spectacular way. There’s a balance that Sawayama achieves which prevents the album from feeling unevenly paced, even when the album’s slowest (admittedly as well its weakest) song picks up after a RnB styled song and leads into the heavily pop-influenced ‘Snakeskin’. Each song just fits so perfectly in its place that the listening experience of the album is always heightened when completing it the track order and not hitting shuffle. Although, even when on shuffle the album’s songs are undeniably a true accomplishment that is a complete ride to listen to from start to finish.
SAWAYAMA though is only about 40% of Rina Sawayama’s extensive non-album associated singles that have trickled out since 2013. All her songs often pay respect to her musical influences while sounding uniquely her own. There’s a kind of listening experience that varies across multiple genres and accumulates into being one of my favourite albums ever released (if not the favourite). From heavier rock sounds to more pop-based or RnB styles, Rina Sawayama manages to navigate any issues of mixing various genres and opens the next chapter of her musical career with an absolute bang. She’s an artist that everyone should look out for as well as listening to at least one song to experience just how much talent she truly possesses.
Rina Sawayana’s SAWAYANA is out now via Dirty Hit.