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Rina Sawayama's debut album 'SAWAYAMA' proves to be brilliant jumpstart to her career

Between her critically-acclaimed first album and ability to secure collaborations with music legends like Elton John, Japanese pop star Rina Sawayama has proven herself as a force to be reckoned with.  – Photo by Rina Sawayama / Twitter

It's been more than a year since Rina Sawayama released her critically-acclaimed debut album, “SAWAYAMA," which was released on April 17, 2020, and the album is still incredible.

Since then, Sawayama recently released a remix of one of her tracks from the album, “Chosen Family,” with music legend Elton John.

The remix, “Chosen Family (with Elton John),” came out just days before her NPR Tiny Desk (Home) Concert and mere months after she successfully made the BRIT Awards change its xenophobic rules to allow British residents who've resided in the country for more than five years but have citizenship elsewhere, like herself, to qualify for their awards.

Although the pandemic has made it impossible to tour, Sawayama is undoubtedly taking the music world by storm — and it’s wholly due to her unique talent.

Somehow managing to link together heartfelt ballads with synth-filled pop anthems and 2000s nostalgia, “SAWAYAMA” is not only diverse, but also cohesively weaved together to make the perfect album to listen to for another 365 days straight.

From the edgy, Evanescence-like “Dynasty” to the lead single and glorious call for bigots to literally “shut the f*** up” in “STFU!” (and its best lyrics: “Have you ever thought about taping your big mouth shut?/'Cause I have, many times, many times”), the first tracks of “SAWAYAMA” are the exact introduction the album needs.

It’s at its most fun in “XS,” the second track and a pop song focused on lampooning the excess that comes with fame and money. Based on Spotify streams, “XS” is the biggest hit on the album, but “STFU!” and “Dynasty” round out both the unique sounds with more serious material hidden behind danceable music.

Borrowing again from 2000s dance hits, the track “Comme des Garçons (Like The Boys)” has similar themes of parody and commentary on the music world like “XS." In this track, Sawayama explores the kind of macho, toxic masculinity that appears in a lot of music, transforming those tropes into a half parody, half female empowerment anthem.

Sawayama said it herself — she wanted to “make a club fashion banger that makes you (feel) like THAT bitch whoever you are.” 

Meanwhile “Akasaka Sad” and “Paradisin’” whip back and forth in terms of lyrical mood and production, but they’re both deeply personal tracks — the former about the feelings of displacement Sawayama feels and imagines her parents did as Japanese immigrants in London and the latter a bright, arcade-inspired ode to childhood fun.

There's some tonal whiplash, but Sawayama manages to make it work, as she does everything else on this incredible album.

We find ourselves with another empowerment anthem, “Love Me 4 Me,” as the midpoint of the album. Cheerful lyrics and a sick guitar solo make the song equivalent to a warm hug —quite the contrast to the next track, “Bad Friend,” which is more like a punch in the gut (in the best way possible).

Sawayama writes about the all too heart-aching and relatable experience of drifting apart from a friend and knowing it’s maybe more than a little bit your fault.

It’s easy to see why Sawayama calls it her favorite song on the album. The production and in-and-out techno autotune help paint the bright picture of the highs of friendship and the lows of it fading — a true showcase of her range and talent.

The anthem of 2020, or of the entirety of our generation, might be one aptly titled “F*** This World (Interlude),” where Sawayama insists she is going to leave Earth for Mars and takes us right along with her in this soaring track.

On the contrary, “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” is Sawayama’s foray into stadium rock, complete with the literal stadium sound effects of cheering in the background and chanting of “Rina!” at the beginning.

It places her on the other side of “XS” in a way that’s much more “f*** you, I’m living my dream!” than crooning about her riches — Sawayama wants us to know that she's successful, and no one is going to stop her. Also, it has a pretty epic key change. 

Tokyo Love Hotel” is a tongue-in-cheek critique about how tourists both romanticize and disrespect Tokyo, and Japan in general, but it’s a damn good song. It’s ironic in a way that’s more sweet than bitter, with Sawayama singing an ode she admits is “just another song ‘bout Tokyo,” but acknowledging that she understands the country she was born in better, even if she doesn’t always feel like she belongs there.

In any other hands, a track like “Chosen Family” would be cloyingly sweet. But Sawayama's slowed down, dreamy penultimate track is more than the sum of its parts. Dedicated to Sawayama’s fellow members of the LGBTQ+ community — and the friends many people within it make if they are rejected by their own blood. “Chosen Family” is genuine, heartfelt and beautiful.

Her 2021 team-up with Elton John on the remix is just as good, if not better, with more stripped-back vocals from Sawayama before their voices blend together perfectly (and I may or may not have cried the first time I listened to it.) 

Snakeskin” is an immediate left turn into haunting vocals and a swelling build-up that immediately grabs your attention, working perfectly as an album closer: “I wanted this to close the album because I felt like the album itself was my snakeskin — I shed my trauma and made art out of it,” Sawayama said.

A year later and “SAWAYAMA” has aged like fine wine. “XS,” “Bad Friend” and “Tokyo Love Hotel” are three of the best songs on an album full of hit after hit, and anyone who has an appreciation for pop and rock as genres, 2000s throwbacks or even just creative and honest lyricism will have a field day with the entire album.

It’s become evident over the past year that Sawayama is a talented force to be reckoned with, and “SAWAYAMA” is only the beginning of her stardom.

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