Sawayama is a bona-fide pop star.
If you build it, they will come. So is the case with Rina Sawayama, artist of the moment. After forming her name and persona over the course of the 2010s, she emerges in 2020 as a bona-fide pop star, with equal parts attention and acclaim. At the current apex of her career is Sawayama, which lays atop of pieces of the past, both pop cultural and personal. She patches them together into a breakneck debut with the personality to back it up: “I’m so good at crashing in.”
The orchestral start of “Dynasty” foretells Sawayama’s arrival; the addition of towering guitars and on-beat percussion declare it underway. This grandiose entrance, for all its pomp, stays grounded in melancholy, not just because of the church bells. Sawayama inherits these riches rather than gain them. So, she declares “If that’s all I’m gonna be/ Won’t you break the chain with me?” enlisting you on her odyssey. Along the way, the sounds of her childhood, which range from new jack swing to nu metal to early aughts J-pop, are all channeled through an omnivorous, observant millennial.
This journey carries you across the different sides of her psyche. Depending on her mood, some of them are explicit in their meaning (“Akasaka Sad,” “Bad Friend”), while others are more tongue-in-cheek (“Commes Des Garcons,” “XS”). Her forceful voice finds a true equal in her lyrics, one of the album’s strongest aspects. The fleet-footed “Paradisin’,” a poppy take on a Crush 40 rush, spells out teenage rebellion with photographic memory: “Hacked my MSN messenger/ Blackmailed my best friend, telling her,” a detailed line and a clever rhyme all in one.
This nimble wordplay allows her to talk in circles around subjects, simultaneously mocking them by adapting their traits. She wears masculinity as much as she wears into it on “Commes Des Garcons,” a menacing bit of dance-pop similar to Natalia Kills. Meanwhile, does she crave “access” as well as “excess” on “XS,” whose interpretations are as varied as its pronunciation? “And I’m taking in as much as I can hold/ Well, here are the things you’ll never know” admits one thing: with riches, regardless of their origins, comes wonder beyond a plebeian’s wildest dreams. With the irreverence of youth, she demands due time in the fun the same way it’s been for celebrities before her: “Let me have an unforgettable time of my life.”
As much as it acknowledges her powers, Sawayama likewise addresses feelings of responsibility. While “Paradisin’” cheekily acquiesces to being an adolescent handful, “Bad Friend” wallows in the remains of a once vibrant friendship. The beat falls out from beneath her in the first chorus, leaving Sawayama with only a vocoder to fill the space with her shame. But the song wisely knows that blame lies on more than just one person’s shoulders. Friendships, like dynasties, are influenced by factors beyond one person’s control.
One of Sawayama’s most complex, and also rewarding, moments arrives on “Tokyo Love Hotel.” Now that Western pop culture has expanded to include Japan’s cultural exports, Tokyo is often fetishized by travel bloggers and weeaboos alike. Sawayama examines this surface-level love of the city and in turn acknowledges her own detachment as an expat. “Another song about Tokyo,” she croons, sure of her love but not always of its intentions or how it may be perceived. Despite its hesitation, the track does the city justice, as does the rest of the album’s sonic homage to mid-aughts albums by Namie Amuro and Kumi Koda.
That said, J-pop hardly constitutes all of Sawayama’s musical references. In fact, the album’s varied assortment of genres further emphasizes Sawayama’s knack for pop of all forms. Like many a modern listener, she views genre as a stepping stone rather than a limitation. The Justin Timberlake Spanish guitar of “XS” inexplicably bleeds into nu metal guitar chords that mark the transition between verse and chorus. In the same way it joins disparate characters, “Chosen Family” mixes country with an Owl City synth line. Up to its end, Sawayama offers these surprise pairings by placing a Final Fantasy theme to a hip-hop delivery.
In its only real shortcoming, the album can be too obvious in its recycling of the past on moments like “Love Me 4 Me,” hugely indebted to Bell Biv DeVoe. Still, this never dulls the LP’s glory; if anything, it highlights and celebrates the events that led to its existence. As they say, the journey is often just as exciting as the destination.