For two years I waited. Since her impressive EP, British-based Japanese singer and songwriter Rina Sawayama somehow remained a hidden gem. If late-90’s/early 00’s diva pop is a favorite genre of yours, rejoice and be glad. Rina is here to save the day. Her soaring vocals and infectious pen separate her from the ordinary rookie artist. Although Sawayama bills as a debut, it sounds nothing like one. Ladies and gentlemen, we have our first truly special album of 2020. As soon as “Dynasty” came on during my first listen I knew I was in for a treat. While it is not a perfect opener, and suffers a bit from intro syndrome (functions exclusively within the tracklist), it introduces Rina’s and primary producer Clarence Clarity’s creative approach. She sings of heritage and tradition, and the duality of those concepts. She tastefully presents the meaning of family throughout this well-crafted record.
However, not before diving into commentary on the status of the world at large. Promo single “XS,” one of the catchiest tunes of the year, garnered comparisons to peak-era Christina Aguilera. I must say, the similarities are uncanny. As a matter of fact, her various styles reminded me of Christina, Lady Gaga (“Chosen Family”), and P!nk (“STFU!”), though many critics compare lead single “STFU!” to Evanescence. I never listened to them growing up, so I’m not going to make that comparison. Nevertheless, Rina’s poise on the track whilst boasting insane vocal range and control is second to none. Yet I anticipated such performances leading up to this release. For the first time this year an artist I enjoy stepped up to the plate. Acts like Rina, Charli XCX, and Billie Eilish have pop music sounding more down-to-earth than ever before. Despite her indie status, I expect Rina to make waves.
Fusing elements of electro-pop (“Commes Des Garçons”), nu-metal (“STFU!”), new jack swing (“Love Me 4 Me”), and vintage balladry (“Chosen Family”), Rina and Clarity combine to make Sawayama a lush, twisting and turning experience of sound. Despite a little bumpiness in terms of pure cohesion between tracks from the start of the record to the end, this debut features the confidence of a ten-year vet. Perhaps the 29 year-old vocalist simply reached her moment at long last. Or maybe we’ve all been sleeping on her for far too long. I argue for the latter. Her growth vocally just from her RINA mini-album/EP astounded me. Those powerful pipes drew me in initially, but now they are fully actualized and laser-focused. Vocals alone do not propel this album nonetheless. Catchy hooks and self-aware lyricism aid Rina on her path to full-blown adulthood. “Bad Friend” is a perfect example.
On its hook she sings: “I’m so good at crashing in / Making sparks and shit but then / I’m a bad, I’m a bad, I’m a bad friend / So don’t ask me where I’ve been / Been avoiding everything / ‘Cause I’m a bad, I’m a bad friend.” Goddamn. That hit me right in the aorta. It may not be the greatest song I’ve ever heard. Yet it resonates with me on so many levels. Neglecting texts, forgetting to congratulate, hardly checking in. I’ve been a shitty friend more times than I can count. And I know we’re not the only ones. It’s songs like these that highlight an artist’s intent and authenticity in the booth. Pop music breaks barriers other genres cannot simply because it has no rules for the most part. With her stunning debut, Rina Sawayama snatches pop freedom, turning it into vibrations of gold.
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