When the latter part of the 2010s – and by extension, the 2020s – are examined in the wider context of music history, one of the key achievements to be noted is how the stereotypical idea of what it takes to be a pop star was completely broken down. Whereas the prerequisite qualities seemed to be already being rich, good-looking and well-connected, now it’s become just as viable of a goal for any aspiring musician as more fringe genres once were. The fact that Billie Eilish has turned herself into a household name has become the albatross of what can be achieved, and that’s subsequently opened the floodgates for new, more interesting names to leave substantial marks in the scene as a whole. That’s the case with Rina Sawayama, operating in similar spaces to other internet-driven acts like Brockhampton thanks to her 2017 EP Rina that mightn’t have set the wider musical alight, but found its audience in vocal, enthusiastic pockets of an online audience in a way that’s become a refreshingly normal way for artists to break. Of course, the backing from a label like Dirty Hit didn’t help, though compared to its current wave of high-flyers who’ve effectively looked to replicate the success of its flagship name The 1975, Sawayama can more comfortably slot in the lane of Charli XCX, making pop music that has as much of propensity to be off-kilter as it does accessible. Admittedly, viewing all of those touchstones in the wider picture isn’t entirely great – Charli’s album last was divisive to say the least, and Dirty Hit haven’t had the greatest time recently thanks to disappointments from Pale Waves, No Rome and even The 1975 themselves – but something about Sawayama comes across as its own entity, away from all of that which surrounds her and with the potential to be its own thing.
That feels compounded by the fact that, as a body of work, there’s really no singular point of reference that can be attributed to Sawayama. That in itself is pretty surprising given how, through bouncing between electro-pop, darker alt-pop, J-pop and even parts of pop-rock and nu-metal, Sawayama’s approach feels decidedly alien in the modern pop landscape, but it’s also because she barely puts a foot wrong here at all. As a chameleonic pop entity that encompasses such bold sonic polarities, maybe Poppy might be an apt comparison, but Sawayama is such a more fleshed-out and interesting prospect than I Disagree even at its best, especially as an album that so expertly toes the line between thriving as the darling of the indie scene, and as an artist who, in a number of moments, could make a very real play for complete pop domination. This is, without question, the best pop album of 2020 so far, and it’s in pretty much every single element that that’s the case.
Of course, that can typically be gleaned from a more independently-minded album like this, given that the opportunity to reach further and do more is always on the table. And for Sawayama especially, that can come down to exploring how her Japanese heritage has shaped her persona and experiences, in facing racism and stereotypes on STFU!, and the worry of losing the connection to her roots on Akasaka Sad that orbits around the same headspace as Tokyo Love Hotel and its chiding of those who visit Japan but don’t respect the people or culture. There’s a great amount of personality on show across this album in various forms; Sawayama’s capriciousness is viewed both with and without the benefit of a tinted lens on Paradisin’ and Bad Friend respectively, while feeding that into an image of self-worth and confidence on Commes Des Garçons (Like The Boys) and Love Me 4 Me, and showing appreciation and gratitude for others in the LGBTQ+ community on Chosen Family. There’s a more concise, holistic picture painted of her than with many pop albums, and that does give some wider-reaching moments like the satire of materialism on XS and the condensed screed on the state of the world on Fuck This World a greater sense of perspective, making it feel as though it’s coming from a real person rather than just another regurgitation of these same ideas.
But beyond all of that, where Sawayama comes together most immaculately is in the sound, something which is executed with the freewheeling, creative daring of an indie artist who’s been given a major label-level budget to do whatever she pleases with. Thus, the production has a hugeness and grandeur that allows the symphonic metal chug of Dynasty to kick things off on a huge note, and is able to keep that up regardless of what guise Sawayama’s sound takes. That comprises an impressive pool as well, though tapping into a more robust rock side tends to be where the highlights crop up most often. Not only does it show off just how fantastic Sawayama’s voice is – particularly on Who’s Gonna Save U Now? whose crowd chanting sets it up as an arena-rock stormer and it feels every inch of it – but there’s a great sense of groove that comes from STFU! that feels like a Poppy song done better, and the spikes of guitar that punch through XS might heavily contrast with the slick turn-of-the-millennium pop, but there’s a weird amount of synergy in there, if only by presenting the extent of Sawayama’s musical breadth in one area. And when it’s all insanely good, there’s really no reason to complain, especially when what could be perceived as a lack of consistency among this album never really feels all that prevalent, because it is all so good. The channelling of darker, more eerie pop that’s in vogue currently is given more opulence and swell on Akasaka Sad and Snakeskin; conversely, there’s such a brightness and energy to the taut disco lento bass and beat of Comme Des Garçons (Like The Boys), the hyperactive J-pop sugar rush of Paradisin’ and the sleek, sassy Love Me 4 Me that almost has a G-funk touch in the squealing synths that run through it. It’s genuinely terrific stuff from front to back, showing an inventiveness that never oversteps its boundaries, but still having the keenest of ears for a melodies and hooks that would make for global smash hits with just the right push.
Getting that push really is the only thing that stands between Sawayama and absolute stardom as well, as there is no doubt whatsover that this album could be the start of something absolutely huge. When every single track already sounds like a guaranteed smash, and Sawayama herself has the vision and raw talent to stand out in an industry that’s moving forward at what feels like a pace to specifically accommodate her, this is pretty much a pop masterclass on every level. What’s more, it’s the sort of pop that’s built to last; this has plenty of ideas, but they’re all fleshed out and developed enough to avoid succumbing to overplay, just another example of the huge hurdles that Sawayama is already preceding to vault over at a frankly alarming rate. Make no mistake, pop in 2020 will struggle to top what Sawayama brings to the table, and that in itself a tremendously exciting thought.
For fans of: Charli XCX, Poppy, Christine And The Queens
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Sawayama’ by Rina Sawayama is out now on Dirty Hit Records.