Listening to Rina SawayamaRina Sawayama’s self-titled debut album is a wild, teeth-bared, unapologetic release. The Japanese-British singer grabs the pop world by the horns, navigating a genre-bending trip down nostalgia-inspired bops and talking about intensely poignant personal hardships, all the while rounding it out with empowering and uplifting fervor.
Sawayama began writing these tracks at the age of 27, as part of a pure and cathartic dissection of her own narrative. She moved with her family to the UK at the age of 5, and was very quickly faced with an overwhelming wave of adversity and a self-proclaimed identity crisis. She had to learn how to deal with her parent’s messy divorce, her family’s difficult intergenerational dynamics, battles with anxiety and depression, hiding her sexuality at an early age, her rebellious teenage years discovering London’s music scene, her troubles fitting in during school, and her time as a model; she certainly had lots to say about it all. She takes a resolute stand in each of the tracks, discussing familial pain, hyper consumerism, teenage angst, misplaced male confidence, racism, and of finding your chosen family.
Sawayama speaks of the variety in early 2000s music charts as her inspiration. The chaotic mash of nu metal, R&B, and bubble-gum pop of the time lends itself to the emotional rollercoaster of this album. One minute the campy, over-the-top melody wakes an inner teenage brat waving a hot pink fuzzy pen in the air, and in the next, you hear an operatic voice and an ear-splitting guitar riff and the Final Fantasy victory tune, and finally a soulful marriage between piano keys and heavy vocals reminiscent of those tearful rain-machine scenes in sad, heartbroken music videos.
As dramatic and theatrical as these 44 minutes are, the seriousness of the subject matter is far from concealed or diminished. She often talks about her efforts to reject Asian stereotyping in media, and this definitely responds to that loud and clear. It is an unfiltered and painfully relatable rendition that is a true representation of Sawayama’s therapeutic approach to music. The point is, it’s essentially impossible to sing along to these songs without raising your arms and belting at the top of your lungs. Her mastery of these improbably joined genres is a testament to her taking center stage and embodying a colossal amount of space, and calling out (well, shouting at) the injustices she’s experienced in her life. Her album SAWAYAMA arrives as an authoritative model for us all to do the same.