The New Canon: Notes on Rina Sawayama’s “Sawayama”

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What makes a brilliant Pop album? The variables change, depending on the person. For some, it is infectious ear candy capable of drowning our sorrows. For others, it is an explosion of experimentation taking us places we have never been before. And for even fewer, perhaps, it is the inclusion of lyricism that not only makes us move but also makes us think.

But what happens when all of these variables are combined into a work so rich and so enthralling, we are hard-pressed to find a suitable, competent supplement? What happens when we find ourselves in the presence of a brilliant Pop album that just so happens to be a phenomenal debut, or even better: that just so happens to be an absolute groundbreaker in the history of Western music? Well, we fall to our knees, of course, beholden that we are alive to witness such wonder in real-time.

There is no kidding here: Sawayama, Rina Sawayama’s debut studio album, is a complete and utter revelation. Building upon the mesmeric mixture of classicism and contemporary from her 2017 mini-album RINA, she has concocted a fresh, vital, and unmistakably original world of electricity and verve. It is akin to a rollercoaster giddily teetering off the tracks: there is excitement and energy at every twist and turn, barely allowing us to catch our breaths.

Although the album carefully and gingerly borrows from various styles and genres, as a whole, it is an ocean unto itself, establishing a core and order that is unique to only Rina. Whereas many debuts reveal themselves as glossy smorgasbords desiring to be everything to everyone, Sawayama’s shimmered diversity is an effortless, seamless reflection of an artist whose many lives in many environs has affected each fiber of her existence.

Sonically, Sawayama evokes a Proustian landscape of the past melding into the feverish present. This collision of epochs feels greatest through the prominent usage of nu-metal. Once a curiously potent yet now strikingly unpopular subgenre from the late 1990s, nu metal has been deliciously redressed and reinterpreted by Rina as a vehicle for catharsis, creating a perfect backdrop for 21st century chaos and volatility.

It first emerges on the imperiously monastic opener “Dynasty” in dank, foreboding flourishes, only to reach its fullest peak on “STFU,” an ode to microaggressions that mimics psychological aggravation with excellent ease. Yet, while its presence is remarkable, nu metal is not the only nostalgic left field that makes Sawayama so impeccable and alive.

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On the blissed-out mania of “Paradisin’,” Rina details her torrid acts of teenage rebellion with the same slice of sublime, rollicking late 2000s indie pop that ruled the concerts she would often sneak off to. With the nu-New Jack Swing of “Love Me 4 Me,” her soul stretches even further back into the smooth, lush bounce of classic R&B that rose to prominence during her early 90’s infancy with a decidedly modern edge. And on the glitter-balled “Comme des Garçons,” we are transported into a fin-de-siècle clubland where hot-and-heavy house never took a hiatus.

But if the pinball ecstasy of Sawayama appears to be a mere reinvention of what has all come before, we are only fooling ourselves. For between the familiar soundscapes, we are, in fact, gifted incredibly profound nuggets of musical history that, once combined, create a carnival of innovation; on Sawayama, the previously recycled becomes brilliantly renewed.

In truth, the concept of renewal serves as a foundation for the album’s introspective lyricism. Whereas RINA focused primarily on the most universal themes of Pop, Sawayama is a deeply personalized exploration of memories, recollections, and even regrets. Within the chunky, dubbed-out atmosphere of “Akasaka Sad,” Rina delicately compares her consistent depression and disappointment with that of her own parents, realizing, in some way, that she is more like them than she perhaps ever desired.

On “Bad Friend,” she uses the fascinating frame of going buckwild in Tokyo with a former friend to painfully reveal that she has, in fact, not been keeping in touch and almost appears as if she does not even intend to. And on the devastatingly disarming chill of “Fuck This World (Interlude),” Rina imagines leaving the rampant decay of the world—perhaps by way of space shuttle or even suicide—in order to try again and start anew. “This is our mission impossible, but it’s worth trying,” she drawls in a rapturous mixture of defeat and hope, and we cannot help but feel the wave of sobriety crashing against our skulls.

Perhaps, more than anything, such psychological and philosophical soul-bearing is precisely why Sawayama feels so monumental. For, if we are being truly honest with ourselves, most of the biggest and well-known Pop stars have never looked nor sounded like Rina. Although other artists of color have had prominent and powerful positions within the genre, those of Asian descent have often been regulated to underground status or have had to play along with stereotypes or expectations in order to achieve a level of success.

Rina, however, feels like an entirely new individual, completely and wholly herself, unconcerned with what others want or desire from her. A child of the millennium, she is inherently influenced by the mainstream sounds that emerged within her formative years. But including her own culture and heritage into these commercialized spaces creates something that is so seamlessly and covertly groundbreaking that if one blinks, they may miss it.

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It’s what makes the aforementioned “Paradisin” feel both relative and revelatory. Sneaking out of one’s house in the middle of the night is a rite of passage for many Western adolescents. Yet, Rina’s perilous perspective of wanting to escape the apartment she shares with her very Eastern-minded mother adds a deeper complexity, revealing a person who wants to belong in the world of which she is growing but feeling stunted by the culture from which she arises.

Such tensions are also prevalent on “Tokyo Takeover,” in which Rina partly-reflects in Japanese on the initial struggles she faced reconciling her heritage amidst a British landscape. Although its lithe, cheerleading yelps create an atmosphere that is strikingly triumphant, we are able to sense the amount of courage and effort it has taken to reach such a level of confidence and immense pride.

For most people of color, there exists a constant awareness of double consciousness, in which you are living between two worlds based on the norms of the dominant and of your own ethnic culture. On Sawayama, Rina introduces this concept into the Pop sphere in ways it has never been viewed before, giving a perspective on race that has, for the time, been primarily evoked by black and Latinx audiences.

In a world inundated with hyperbole, in which each and every critic—or citizen, as we now all hold such careers—trips over themselves to anoint the latest work of art as important and groundbreaking, it is perhaps hard for anyone to decipher the true concept of importance when it is before them. But Sawayama cannot simply be described or viewed as anything else. While it may play with typical concepts and beliefs within the Pop genre, it provides so much newness and freshness that it cannot be merely seen as another “release.”

Instead, especially amidst the current global landscape of abject terror and uncertainty, Sawayama introduces a sociocultural viewpoint that forces one to wonder why such a work of art had never been created before. It forces one to acknowledge the discrimination and tokenism of the music industry. It forces one to look upon those would-be-crossover artists of years’ past who may have generated greater followings had they been allowed the opportunity.

Unsurprisingly, Rina herself has been quite vocal about this widespread racism and her unique and crucial position in the world of Pop; she is incredibly keen of those who crawled so she could walk. And with Sawayama, she has created a brilliant, bountiful reflection of these epiphanies, giving us a spellbinding album that obliterates the boundaries that rose before and opens new paths for those inching to rise after.

About Marsalis

poet of pop.
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