Album Review: SAWAYAMA by Rina Sawayama

At the end of every year, I take a look at some year-end lists ranking the best albums of the year. While my music tastes usually go towards pop and R&B, I try and expand my tastes every now and then. Throughout my search, one album kept showing up: SAWAYAMA by Rina Sawayama. The album released in April of last year by Rina Sawayama under indie record label Dirty Hit. Every once in a while, Rina Sawayama would come up on my recommended lists on Spotify, or in a reaction Youtube video. And yet, I never listened. Not until I began my perusal in January. 

Admittedly, I was thrown off by SAWAYAMA at first. I was expecting pop-rock, which Sawayama delivers, but I was not expecting metal or R&B, which are both featured on the album. A conglomeration of genres, SAWAYAMA threw me for a loop on first listen. And I put it down. A month later, my brain kept going back to the album. Initially, SAWAYAMA shocked. Now? I'm overwhelmingly awed when listening.

Listening to SAWAYAMA is like experiencing raw emotion. Feeling frustrated? Elevate it to next-level angry with "STFU!," the third song on the album. Whenever I feel frustrated, I experience a special kind of catharsis listening to "STFU!," in which anger is validated and approached head-on. Rina Sawayama is unafraid to show the multiple layers of herself. Angry with "STFU!," scolding with "XS," introspective with "Bad Friend," and self-aware with "Tokyo Love Hotel." All of which are stand-outs on the album, but there are no skips in the entire album. I've spent multiple days just listening to the deluxe edition of the album over and over again. With such layered songs, I discover something new each time. 

Sawayama is the primary lyricist on the album, co-writing or writing all the tracks. Sawayama's personal touch is present throughout, elevating SAWAYAMA from a fun, genre-bending album that could get lost in the shuffle to an intriguing insight on a rising star. In "STFU!," Sawayama asks, "How come you don't expect me/To get mad when I'm angry?," alluding to the thin line between mad and angry that women — especially women of color, like Sawayama — are expected to balance on. "Akasaka Sad" focuses on how depression follows and creeps in everywhere, and how Sawayama hasn't met the lofty goals she placed on herself, quipping, "Twenty-eight and I still want to scream/Can't face who I can and can't be." By embedding the personal throughout her album, Sawayama transforms from a talented performer to someone listeners can relate to — a genius move. 

While SAWAYAMA provides emotion and insight, it's also made for dancing. Though it's highly likely that Sawayama won't tour the album due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I can't help but picture a concert in my mind. Pit-moshing during "XS," "STFU!," and "Paradisin'." "Chosen Family" — a soft ballad on how family is chosen, not biological — is the perfect concert closer. If I close my eyes, I can see the swaying phone flashlights. An encore? Look no further than "XS" remix with Bree Runway, which is impossible not to dance to. 

Above all, SAWAYAMA sounds new. Maybe it's because I commonly listen to mainstream artists, but SAWAYAMA feels like electricity in my veins. The high is strong and I keep coming back for more.