‘SAWAYAMA’ will go down as one of the best debuts of 2020

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Add to library: ‘Comme Des Garçons’, ‘XS’, ‘Paradisin’’

Score: 9/10

Rina Sawayama’s debut LP is a rich and articulate statement about family, friendship and identity. 

2017’s RINA mini-album gave the Japanese-English singer a reputation for fizzy, high-gloss noughties-pop that articulated complex themes of Asian representation in the media and loneliness in the internet age. 

Fittingly, these songs found a niche audience among woke digital natives – her fans call themselves ‘Pixels’ – who admire Rina’s political candour as much as her glittering bops. Released by Dirty Hit Records, the ultra-hip home of Wolf Alice and The 1975, SAWAYAMA arrives on the biggest platform her career has seen so far. 

Despite the welcome boost in profile, the record demonstrates zero interest in carving out a chart presence for itself. Instead Rina uses it as an opportunity to inflate the introspective bubble she and her fans already share. 

Rock opera opener ‘Dynasty’ sets the therapy-session tone, reflecting on her family’s intergenerational pain and searching for ways to reclaim her own life story: ‘Won’t you break the chain with me?SAWAYAMA excels at communicating the burdens of family, anxiety and racism through precise melodies and extravagant production.

Helmed primarily by Clarence Clarity, the music revels in the blunt contrast between heavy metal machismo and synthetic pop, often within the same song. That’s not to say it lacks levity – ‘Comme Des Garçons’ serves sleek ballroom-house; new jack swing jaunt ‘Love Me 4 Me’ paraphrases RuPaul‘s favourite adage; while ‘XS’ gleefully takes the piss out of materialism over Middle Eastern-flavoured R&B.

Yet the most exciting tracks explore the culture clash between Rina’s strict East Asian upbringing and the alluring excess of the West, and in doing so, break fresh lyrical ground.

Mimicking the sensory overload of being hungover at a Japanese video game arcade, ‘Paradisin’’ tells the story of a teenage Rina blanking her mother’s phone calls to go binge drinking with her mates in Trafalgar Square, driving the poor woman ‘cra-a-a-a-azy’. 8-bit chiptune synths and rapid drums capture the pair’s game of cat-and-mouse perfectly. 

Things get a little too earnest on ‘Chosen Family’, a ballad about outcasts and the plutonic support systems they form in adulthood that, while objectively lovely, comes off as treacly and Disneyfied next to 12 genre-bending tracks. But this is a minor blip – and certainly not enough to derail what will go down as one of the most impressive debuts of 2020. 

‘Fearless’ by Fleur East: X Factor star has a ‘Sax’ to grind

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Score: 7/10

Add to playlist: ‘Favourite Thing’, ‘Mine’, ‘Easy to Love’

Fleur East’s long-awaited second album channels earthy grooves and crisp R&B beats. 

Less than a minute into Fearless, Fleur East quips ‘I guess I’m easy to love’. If you were one of the eight million-plus people that tuned in to watch her flourish throughout The X Factor UK’s 11th series in 2014, you might still agree.

Every week, Fleur lit up living rooms across Britain with tight choreography and a unique soul-funk sensibility. Although she ultimately placed runner-up behind Ben Haenow – pronounced ‘who now?’ – her infamous ‘Uptown Funk’ performance became the stuff of pop music lore: a recording of Fleur’s cover instantly soared up the iTunes chart, forcing Mark Ronson to release his original five weeks earlier than planned. 

Debut album Love, Sax and Flashbacks cashed-in on this watercooler moment with an energetic, ballad-free set that cribbed shamelessly from the likes of James Brown – and was all the better for it. The record deserved to be huge, but by the time Simon Cowell’s Syco label bungled the release of second single ‘More & More’, all momentum was lost.

Smash cut to 2020. Sophomore album Fearless trades 80s maximalism for earthier grooves and crisp R&B beats, and therefore struggles to be as broadly entertaining as its predecessor. On the bright side, the music is less demanding on Fleur’s voice, which, while lovely, is too throaty for the belting diva antics of ‘Sax’. 

Across 13 tracks, Fleur is eager to prove there’s more to her than that novelty hit. There’s charming Afrobeat (‘Lucky’, ‘Who You Are’), steamy latin-pop (‘There She Go’), and a generous helping of velvety midtempos (‘Figured Out’, ‘Mine’). Vocally, she really finds her footing, and uses her natural husk to great effect on guitar ballad ‘Absence Speaks Louder Than Words’. 

But when you’re a popstar known for your fearless performances, you better be packing something to tear up the stage with. ‘Favourite Thing’ – with its Ghanaian gospel chants and stunning climax – is the only thing Cowell will kick himself for missing out on, but ‘Size’ is a successful callback to Fleur’s funky debut, while ‘Easy to Love’ is a breezy delight. 

After years of setbacks, the independently-released Fearless should make its creator very proud  – even if the music isn’t as adventurous as its title implies. 

Dua Lipa and the irrepressible spirit of ‘Future Nostalgia’

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Add to playlist: The first nine tracks​​​​​​​

Score: 9/10

Dua Lipa’s sophomore album is short, sweet and full of character. 

Pop nerds like myself have long been thirsty for the next Imperial Phase. Something akin to The Fame Monster or Teenage Dream – that elusive milestone in a popstar’s career when their relevance, radio/streaming support and artistic output peak at exactly the same time. 

Every single is a classic. The visuals are cohesive and iconic. And when the overexposure inevitably prompts a public backlash, that’s when you know you’ve made it. 

Dua Lipa has been promising a blockbuster era for sophomore album Future Nostalgia since last November, when she unveiled her fresh, noughties-infused look and sound with a neo-disco ditty called ‘Don’t Start Now’. Of course, just as the powers that be dangle a campaign with legend-making potential in front of us, they also drop a worldwide pandemic. 

Surprisingly, despite promo opportunities drying up, and the likes of Lady Gaga and Alicia Keys postponing their summer projects, Dua brought her April 3rd release date a week forward. An early leak may have forced Warner Records’ hand, but nonetheless, the campaign unfolded in a way that honours the album’s irrepressible spirit. Coronavirus be damned. 

This stubborn commitment also applies to Future Nostalgia as a body of work. As the evocative title suggests, a lot of effort has gone into deconstructing your favourite dance-pop guilty pleasures from 1998–2005 and splicing them together with slick, contemporary grooves. 

Think ‘Starlight’ by The Supermen Lovers. Or Moloko. Or anyone of Britain’s own doomed successors to Kylie’s throne (Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Rachel Stevens, Lisa Scott-Lee). If that sounds like a scrapheap to you, in Dua’s hands, it’s a goldmine of squelchy basslines, shuffling disco beats and jubilant melodies. 

My favourite thing about Future Nostalgia is how each song pursues a different extreme. ‘Cool’ is the most eighties. ‘Pretty Please’ is the most titillating. The title track is the most batshit insane. You might not always be in the mood for the most Lily Allen (‘Good In Bed’) or capital-F Feminist (‘Boys Will Be Boys’). But see how you feel in a decade. Nostalgia is a powerful thing.