Photo Credit: Hendrik Schneider
Painstakingly crafted among a tightly knit group of friends and collaborators, the year’s best pop album came not from an industry byproduct but a self-starter who’s among the hardest-working young stars in the game. SAWAYAMA is the debut LP from London-based Rina Sawayama, and it’s acid-dipped, Y2K-fixated, capital-P Pop of the cinnamon bubble gum variety.
Sawayama is a pop culture fiend and a terrifyingly on-point fashion icon, lapping her peers by light years in trend-setting prowess. Arriving right on schedule is her first-at-bat infusion of Y2K trends into modern pop music; each song inhabits a unique world of production all on its own, sounding fresh and new. An undercurrent of nümetal flows through the album, jumping out at the most unexpected moments and cementing the slightly off-kilter feel that makes every listen a thrill. First single “STFU!” is anchored by meaty electric guitars and chewy pop hooks that meld into an umami mess that’s near-perfect.
An intercontinental adolescence informs the album’s storyline of constant reinvention. Sawayama spent her youth in London, but is native to Japan and lived there until the age of five. Her struggles with identity and duality were heavily documented when nominations for the last BRIT Awards excluded her from consideration due to her place of birth. SAWAYAMA redirects trauma and confusion as colorful, deeply personal lyrical explorations and layered instrumentals that convey specific states of mind. Opener “Dynasty” laments that “the pain in [her] veins is hereditary.” Her familial turmoil is chronicled further in “Akasaka Sad”, a song that describes her intimate relationship with a depression that follows her wherever she goes.
The album defies conventional genre boundaries and finds its success in expressing lucid emotion. “Commes des Garçons (Like The Boys)” is a Chicago house bop that mocks the innate overconfidence of heterosexual white men, inspired by Texan Beto O’Rourke’s eager attempt at grabbing a US presidential nomination. “Bad Friend” casts Sawayama as an unexpected antagonist, the friend who stops shows up for no reason. “Don’t ask me where I’ve been // Been avoidin’ everything,” she sighs. Her delivery casts a long shadow.
As the album closes, the chain of remorse is broken by “Chosen Family”, a song that reflects on the queer community that Sawayama found solace in. She rejoices in their embrace as she sings, “We don’t have to be related to relate.” Quickly, though, the blender turns back on, and “Snakeskin” expresses the angst that grows as Sawayama bares her soul for her art. The wall of sound that builds suddenly shifts and breaks away into a free fall. Audio of a conversation with her mother is scored by Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique, letting the album close in contemplative silence.
Honesty is the most integral piece in Sawayama’s songwriting puzzle. Her lyrics course with seething rage, glaring apathy and vivid ecstasy as she articulates exactly what it feels like to be her. Boy, does it suck sometimes. But the pure thrill of listening to the album elicits an understanding that this person has bigger waves to make still in the music landscape. It’ll be a joy to watch them roll in.