You might hope that a record released in the midst of a pandemic would be able to distract you from the current state of affairs—a record interesting enough to make you forget, even just momentarily, that the world is pure chaos. Rina Sawayama’s debut LP Sawayama (out April 17 via Dirty Hit Records) does exactly that.
We’ve been inching towards an early Max Martin-esque maximalist pop revival for several years now, between artists like Liz, Kero Kero Bonito, Holiday Sidewinder, and, in a strange way, 100 gecs, but Sawayama solidifies the notion that bubblegum pop is back, fully self-aware and ready to conquer. With the help of longtime-producer Clarence Clarity, Rina Sawayama modernizes a sound made famous by Britney Spears, *NSYNC and all who reigned supreme on Casey Kasem’s weekly Top 40 countdown around the turn of the last millennia. More importantly, however, she upholds the integrity of the genre, gently reminding us why we all, deep down, truly love pop music.
Right off the bat, Sawayama is powerful. The first three songs are insanely dynamic, stringing together two vibrant pop songs (the first about standing up on your own, the second about excessive wealth) into what can only be described as Gwen Stefani-meets-nu-metal. As far as the meaning of this record goes, Sawayama sums it up herself in a recent interview: “The album ultimately is about family and identity. It’s about understanding yourself in the context of two opposing cultures (for me British and Japanese), what ‘belonging’ means when home is an evolving concept, figuring out where you sit comfortably within and awkwardly outside of stereotypes, and ultimately trying to be ok with just being you, warts and all.”
As a performer, Sawayama is captivating. Her vocal styling is versatile on her debut record, skipping around sultry melodies in tracks like “Akasaka Sad” and ending with a beltworthy slowburn, “Chosen Family.” Sawayama’s delivery is mindful, something both self-aware and purpose-driven that seems to directly oppose the stereotypical belief that millennium-era pop music is shallow and lacking in substance. If anything, Sawayama proves that particular outdated misconception needs to be put to rest for good.
Musically, this record is aggressive in the best way possible. Tracks like “Comme Des Garçons (Like The Boys)” deliver danceworthy basslines and disco beats, forcing your body straight into motion. The larger-than-life vibe all over this record is in your face until it’s not, by which point you’re begging for it to return. Remarkably, the copious effects, layers of synths and electronic blips never strip any value from the tracks; instead, they push the limit of how much is too much. We learn, in Rina Sawayama’s world, there is never too much—excess is warranted, expected and craved.
Sawayama is an exhilarating reminder of a bygone time when boy bands ruled all and commercialism ruled the boy bands. That era is long gone, but that particular brand of maximalist pop is back, only better now than before.
Annie Black is a writer currently residing in Atlanta. Follow her on Twitter for tweets mostly about vegetables, sometimes about music.