Rina Sawayama’s Self-Titled Debut Is The Perfect Album For Quarantine

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2017 was a busy year — Melodrama and CTRL alone sucked the air out of the room — so casual listeners are forgiven if they somehow missed Rina Sawayama’s unassuming mini-album, Rina. Her digital anxiety anthem “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome” instantly proved she knew her way around a hook, and the glitterati-rejecting “Ordinary Superstar” indicated she had her own ideas about what being a pop star might mean. But if Rina was a pretty good independent pop EP, then her full-length debut, Sawayama, out earlier this month, is great. And three years later — in the middle of a goddamn global pandemic — there are no excuses for not getting deep into Rina’s eclectic new record.

Born in Japan in 1990 and raised in London, Rina is nostalgic not for those massive, crackling ‘90s anthems that ruled American airwaves but for Y2Ks brittle synth-fluff and wailing, arena-loud guitars. Like Poppy before her, Rina is fascinated by the way the internet has forever fused itself with interpersonal relationships, and is equally determined to bring the emotionalism of screamo into the traditionally feminine world of mainstream pop performers. But where Poppy sought surrealist personas and tongue-in-cheek, fake-deep philosophy, Rina is more interested in taking pop’s historical signifiers and making them her own.

“XS” pretends to be a homage to R&B’s obsession with materialism, but the chainsaw-revved spikes of electric guitar add the correct amount of camp to the song’s threadbare lyrics, dismantling the song’s shallow desires without deflating the fun of living beyond your means, either emotionally or financially. On its heels comes “STFU!,” another early single that wields raging guitars in a similar fashion (and also like Poppy, owes a debt to Grimes), knifing rampant misogyny and the fetishization of Asian women with a daydream-y, rage-fueled expression of anger that most women, and frankly, plenty of men, will likely find cathartic.

But despite these hints at a new guitar-focused sound — late in the album, “Who’s Gonna Save You Now?” reprises nu-metal again, with similar success — Sawayama isn’t a pivot to pure blissed-out angry rock. This is the kind of debut that emerging pop stars dream about making; and at the core it’s anchored by the monster single, “Commes Des Garçons (Like The Boys),” which might be my own personal song of the year, while I’m still thankful the rest of the album is divergent from that song’s wub-wub club sound, weaving spun-sugar throwback pop and slinky R&B alongside the aforementioned nu-rock standouts, all without ever losing the thread that ties them all together.

Like the standouts on her early EP indicated, Rina is at her best as a songwriter when she gets into the sticky, ugly ephemera of human relationships, and the stark, self-aware assessment of “Bad Friend” makes the woozy chorus hit like a hot and cold chill — most of us have been on both sides of this coin. On the other hand, “Chosen Family” asserts a bond that can’t be broken even when blood ties have been, naming loved ones as whoever the heart decides they will be and converting this trusted inner circle into family, an all-too-familiar ritual, in the queer community especially.

Releasing the one-off single “Cherry” in 2018, Sawayama made a public statement about her own queerness, addressing the prevalence of biphobia, and rallying the LGBTQ community behind her in the process. “Chosen Family” follows up on the subject in a completely different way, skating as close to unabashed tenderness as Rina gets on an otherwise high-energy song cycle. Again, her ability to include this kind of cinematic ballad on an album that’s dominated by bangers, and not have it feel out of place, is a testament to the record’s flexibility and cohesion.

There are so many layers on Sawayama that even a full two weeks after the record was released, I’m still finding new elements cropping up on the songs I’ve been through a hundred times. One of my favorite deeper cuts, “Paradisin’,” initially feels like a long lost cousin of Hoku’s “Perfect Day” (popularized by the Legally Blonde soundtrack, natch), until a new listen earlier today had me realizing the saxophone interlude ties it directly into the blessed lineage of The 1975-leaning bops. Listen with this in mind and it’s easy to imagine Matty himself singing the track, and actually, that’s another band that effortlessly blurs the line between earnest and ironic in the way that Rina does. So it’s probably not surprising to learn that the band’s guitarist, Adam Hann, contributed to the album, and that they are both affiliated with UK label Dirty Hit.

While the majority of Sawayama is catchy and wild enough to earn play after play, I’d be remiss not to spend longer praising “Commes Des Garçons (Like The Boys).” Here, Rina’s wordplay hat tips one of the most celebrated Japanese labels in the world, spotlights the gay male community, and delivers a female empowerment anthem that’s also a certified dancefloor destroyer. The remix, featuring Brazilian drag queen Pabllo Vittar (you heard him on a Charli XCX joint) simply doubles down on all of these elements, with welcome weird glitchiness, and since it’s the thought that counts, I can say I love the brazen sleekness of the original.

Though I do hope that 2020 will be full of pop albums that carry epic cultural narratives along with them, in the way that Fiona Apple’s recent Fetch The Bolt Cutters does, I’m secretly glad that plenty of massive, established stars have pushed or shelved their releases. This gives a soon-to-be star like Rina the space to take center stage, and gives otherwise occupied listeners some free time to explore a record they might’ve otherwise missed. On her full-length debut, the Japanese-British pop star delivers a freewheeling record that delights in confident, unruly weirdness — put your headphones in and give this album the obsessive listens it deserves.

Sawayama is out now via Dirty Hit. Get it here.