Rina Sawayama “SAWAYAMA” – Album Review

Rina Sawayama has been making waves across the globe for the past three years with ethereal synth pop records, and this new era shows her willingness to experiment with different sounds. Her brand new full-length project, “SAWAYAMA,” is a genre-defying mashup of breezy dancepop production on pulsing queer club anthems like “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys)” and heavy nu-metal guitar riffs on songs like “STFU!” and “XS.”

This massive shift in sound is a huge departure from Sawayama’s previous work, but it wasn’t her intention to lean more experimental when she began the recording process. In an interview with PAPER Magazine the singer revealed “it started off like, 90s, Max Martin vibes. Then I’d watched that Queen movie [Bohemian Rhapsody] and A Star Is Born and I was like, it just needs to be stadium rock.”

Sawayama’s music has always been intrinsically connected to her identity as a queer Asian woman. Her most-streamed single, “Cherry,” celebrates pansexuality and romantic relationships between women, while songs on this album like “Dynasty,” “Tokyo Love Hotel,” and “STFU!” express her connection to her heritage as well as her frustration with racist microaggressions and the fetishization of Asian women and Japanese culture (“How come you don’t respect me?/Expecting fantasies to be my reality”).

Themes of identity and self-acceptance continue on tracks like “Love Me 4 Me,” which includes a nod to Rupaul (“If you can’t love yourself/how are you gonna love somebody else?”), and “Chosen Family,” which celebrates the connections formed in LGBTQ+ circles when biological families aren’t equipped to love their queer family members unconditionally.

But “Akasaka Sad” is truly in a league of its own. The song contains so many peaks and valleys that listeners might think the producer spazzed out on the soundboard. The song has drum beats, synth bubbles, distorted background screams, and a string ensemble. It is utter sonic chaos that signals a shift in tone, steering the album in a more sinister direction with serious tracks that tackle themes like betrayal and the climate crisis (“Fuck This World,” “Bad Friend,” “Who’s Gonna Save You Now”).

On the closing track “Snakeskin,” Sawayama uses the commercialization and commodification of snakeskin on handbags and couture as a metaphor for her peeling back her layers and expressing her pain. The opening piano is a sample of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 “Pathétique,” and the song comes to a close with the voice of her mother fading into the background, her words purposely jumbled and distorted.

We are in one of the most exciting eras for pop music with artists like Charli XCX, Kim Petras, Caroline Polachek, Grimes, Carly Rae Jepsen, MARINA, and FKA Twigs actively making listeners question their expectations of what the genre can be. Rina Sawayama is the latest to follow in a lineage of legends to revolutionize and push pop forward like Madonna, Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera, and Kylie Minogue, and this record is only the beginning of her world domination.

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