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

Stream on Spotify

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. 

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