"the album leans lyrically on the idea of nostalgia and memory"Instagram/rinasonline

Japanese-British pop star Rina Sawayama’s debut album has been much buzzed about for its musical influences. While nostalgia for the turn of the century has been something of a trope in pop music as of late—Shape of You’s interpolation of No Scrubs, 1999 by Charli XCX, a myriad of music videos—Sawayama and co-producer/writer Clarence Clarity go seemingly all-in. What’s most important, however, is that these influences are used to tell stories and that the songs stand up in their own right.

The kind of musical borrowing executed by Sawayama and her collaborators is brilliant firstly because it draws from such a vast pool of influences. Playlists on Sawayama’s Spotify page list the myriad of songs that influenced—consciously or unconsciously—the tracks from the album. Pulling from work by pop icons like Britney Spears, to nu-metal and rock crossover hits, and even less revered staples of the 2000s like Liberty X, makes the album sound as much of a collage as the decade’s music. That many songs will have you asking what songs from years past you might be being reminded of works so well because the album leans lyrically on the idea of nostalgia and memory.

“SAWAYAMA is political and at the same time simply a brilliant, thought-provoking pop album”

On one of the most striking openers in recent years, ‘Dynasty,’ Sawayama addresses the inheritance of generational mental health struggles over a vast orchestral backing that combines pop-rock and nu-metal influences. Not that pop music has shied away from subjects like this in recent years, but it still feels striking to hear her sing: ‘The pain in my vein is hereditary, running in my bloodstream.’ Before you can even blink, Sawayama is writing nostalgic odes to childhood, and nuanced love songs to Tokyo and the LGBT community. ‘STFU’ takes from crossover rock and nu-metal hits, as it exposes righteous anger about racist microaggressions: “Have you ever thought about taping your big mouth shut?” Sawayama lilts over dreamlike guitar and bells, before a crunching guitar riff slams back into frame.

Sawayama is to be commended for putting out an album that pulls no punches lyrically and trades on its musical content rather than on face-value nostalgia for decades past. Sawayama’s vocals are stunning throughout as she weaves between different genres, from the soaring falsetto runs at the end of ‘Dynasty,’ to the breathy, confessional ‘Bad Friend’. With a few exceptions, she and producer Clarence Clarity steer clear of that great pop tradition of ripping off other songs. The nautical bass-synth on ‘Comme de Garçons’ brings immediately to mind ‘Fade’ from Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, but eschews this entirely in favour of a dance-pop banger querying how women adopt masculine norms to feel confident. Her use of musical pastiche makes so much sense because the subject of these songs is so often linked to the sound. ‘XS’ knowingly critiques consumer capitalism by taking influence from The Neptunes’ production for artists like Britney Spears, a sound with a brilliant gloss that makes it impossible not to be taken in. The music is a metaphor in itself for consumerism. If we know it’s bad for us, why are we so entranced by it? “Gimme just a little bit more, little bit of excess” she asks in the chorus.


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SAWAYAMA is political and at the same time simply a brilliant, thought-provoking pop album, laser-targeted for engagement with those of us who grew up in the 1990s or 2000s. All the better for it, because the ideas being expressed here are smart and hugely valuable. Sawayama is able to ponder over serious subjects without feeling preachy, writing relatable music without eschewing her personal experience as a Japanese-British immigrant.

If there is a flaw to be identified here, the sheer diversity of musical styles and tones in such a short run-time makes the listening experience overwhelming. Against a landscape of albums that tend to run to an hour plus to maximise streaming revenues, SAWAYAMA condenses two decades of pop music into a meagre 43 minutes. The lack of cohesion and any individual sound might come back to bite Sawayama in a world where pop stars are expected to have a relatively cohesive musical identity even if they cross genres and dabble in different sounds.

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