Born Tomorrow: Rina Sawayama’s Radical Triple Play

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It is quite hard not to be marveled by Rina Sawayama. With a keen sense of Pop knowledge and an impenetrable insight on millennial madness, she has emerged as one of the most astute and exciting chroniclers of our new yet volcanic century, utilizing nostalgic productions to evoke contemporary dread. Through her careful, perceptive lens, modern life is a tapestry of digital ennui and anxious splendor—a cold, chaotic universe inundated with bright, beautiful illusions and distractions.

This first came to fore on her masterful mini-album, RINA, which seamlessly fused Max Martin melodies of the late 90s with taut lyricism about online avatars and cell phone co-dependency. Then came “Cherry,” a blissed-out paean to pansexuality and “Flicker,” a bouncy ballad in praise of heritage, a pair of delicious stop-gap gems reflecting the sundry backdrop of youth culture. Yet, since November of last year, she has been steadily releasing content for her debut album Sawayama, each further analyzing our most complex, sociopolitical structures in ways that no other Pop star seems capable.

With “STFU,” a rollicking, neck-breaking torpedo of rage, Rina confronts the persistent and inexplicable horror of racial intolerance against a sonic backdrop that is every bit Korn as it is Britney Spears. There is a cool innovation here, melding the sour and sweet so gently the union feels unlike anything heard before. Alternating between typhoon aggression within the verses and breezy tranquility within the chorus, one cannot help but feel the encroaching, pulsating disgust toward her ignorant lovers and acquaintances, reaching a mind-bending fever pitch as the two emotions collide with an intensity that is both cathartic and fearsome.

Off the heels of that nu-metal melancholia arrived “Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys),” a decidedly millennial recreation of lavish, libidinous fin-de-siècle club anthems. Here is where the academic invention and playfulness of Rina becomes most apparent: using delicious house beats over lampoons of patriarchy and its associated pomposity, she creates a brilliant alignment of social commentary and endless groove that rests comfortably between Blur’s sardonic satire “Girls and Boys” and Crystal Waters’ concrete-coated classic “Gypsy Woman.” As with those disparate tracks, “Like the Boys” is so irresistible and tantalizing that one nearly forgets they are dancing to depth, igniting senseless, carefree fun even as its profundity hangs over with a pernicious bite.

And then, barely twenty-four hours ago, we were gifted with “XS,” yet another effortless slice of pop perfection. As if buried in an enchanted tomb under Jive Records for the last 20 years, its Rodney Jerkins hues gleam marvelous as Rina jubilantly rhapsodizes on endless excess and conspicuous consumption. Yet what initially appears to be another celebration of shameless wealth is in fact a subtly-drawn study on climate control and capitalism’s tightening grip on the global populace. By focusing on the perplexing duality of peace and materialism—perhaps the two most prized of millennial values—Rina paints an environment too obsessed with artifice to forego the ugliness that keeps it glimmering, as if holding a mirror up to our vanity in hopes that we may learn to break the cycle.

With these three disparate, remarkable tracks alone, Rina Sawayama has already set the tone for what is shaping to be a truly incredible and breathtaking album. Although her previous work embodied the same expertise and craftsmanship, it is here where she seems to be fully growing into a truly impeccable Pop entity, smoothly injecting past and personal experiences with a touch that is undeniably alive and universal. That ability to be both introspective and wildly accessible is already a tremendous feat; yet, by celebrating both her history and her identity, Rina pushes the atmosphere further, forcing many to confront why her presence is so invaluable and why her perspective can never be erased.

About Marsalis

poet of pop.
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