Album Review: SAWAYAMA

Distinctive and daring, Rina Sawayama delivers a well-crafted musical portrait on her debut album

“Where do I belong? / Tell me your story and I’ll tell you mine.”

Rina Sawayama has secured upcoming pop-star status with her debut album SAWAYAMA. Born in Japan and based in the UK, her album is a reflection upon mixed cultural identity, as well as themes of luxury and self-love. 

The album-opener Dynasty fittingly begins with a crescendo that sounds as if we are zooming into her world of pain. She uncovers the dark cloud that hovered over her upbringing and declares: “I’m a dynasty / The pain in my vein is hereditary”. The heavy electric guitars and bashing drums lift her impressive vocals to create a grand entrance to the world of her album.

But rock isn't the only genre that Sawayama wields on this impressive full-length collection. She finds a way to seamlessly blend rock and R&B sounds in XS as she scrutinizes lavish lifestyles, set over a glossy track reminiscent of early 2000s Justin Timberlake. She carries her electric guitars over to STFU!, the thrashy and perhaps most memorable anthem of the album. “Have you ever thought about taping your big mouth shut? / Cause I have many times, many times,” she asserts.

If this album were a television set, it is one where Rina rapidly switches the channels between playful and brooding moods. She chants “I’m so confident” in the upbeat and empowering Commes des Garcons (Like The Boys). Elsewhere, she sings “Sucks to be me / Sucks to be so lonely,” in Akasaka Sad,confronting her feelings of cultural displacement. She switches the channel again and picks herself up in uber-bubbly Paradisin as she reminisces on her unforgettable teen years- before lifting herself even higher with an outpouring of self-love on Love Me 4 Me. But she steps down from this self-love and gets introspective in Bad Friend, a tune that Elton John himself recently dubbed “a song that Madonna would die for”. Her echoing vocals glow on top of sultry instrumentals, as she sings of a lost friendship: “Maybe I’m a bad friend”. 

The last quarter of the album is truly a showcase of Sawayama's creative versatility. She revisits rock-infusion at full force in Who’s Gonna Save U Now?, a track that could be considered a sister to STFU!. If you’re looking for a danceable yet thought-provoking track, Tokyo Love Hotel is for you- a song where Sawayama confesses her protectiveness over her home of Tokyo. Then, she unwinds in the ballad Chosen Family to deliver a love letter to fans that reads, “We don’t need to be related to relate / We don’t need to share genes or a surname”. The closing track Snakeskin is an expression in shedding her trauma, and feels like a satisfying close to the album.

SAWAYAMA is a carefully crafted, memorable, and bold portrait of Rina Sawayama. She unravels her feelings of cultural rootlessness while dabbling in Y2K-inspired fun, all laced with references to her favourite city of Tokyo. While some have criticized the album for a lack of thematic cohesion, it is refreshing to be kept on your toes. The thing that keeps it cohesive is that it is distinctive and daring, and Rina certainly proves that she is her own.

Marina Ogawa

Editor in Chief