Rina Sawayama – ‘SAWAYAMA’ review: deeply personal self-portrait lays waste to genre constraints

Nu-metal? In 2020? The burgeoning pop star's thrilling – and wildly eclectic – debut album breathes new life into familiar sounds

What do Limp Bizkit, Korn and Rina Sawayama have in common? Answer – they’re all pros in creating nu-metal smashes. On ‘STFU!’, the lead single for Sawayama’s debut album ‘SAWAYAMA’, the British-Japanese singer rails against the racist micro-aggressions she’s had to put up with throughout her life.

Over thrashing guitars Sawayama roars the chorus of “Shut the fuck up” over and over, before asking “Have you ever thought about / Taping your big mouth shut ’cause I have many times”. It’s a blistering cut, and falls somewhere between Evanescence, Limp Bizkit and JoJo, and was a powerful introduction to the world Sawayama wanted to create on her new album ‘SAWAYAMA’.

Her debut album has been a long time in the making. Since releasing her first song (the woozy ‘Sleeping in Waking’) in 2013, Sawayama hustled for years as an independent artist; self-funding her music through modelling deals and part-time jobs (she’s now signed to trendy record label Dirty Hit – the team behind The 1975 and Wolf Alice).

Alongside a handful standalone singles – including the brilliant ‘Cherry’, which saw Sawayama assess her internalised biphobia – in 2017 she put out the brilliant EP ‘Rina’, a glossy collection of avant-pop songs that blend R&B production with hooks straight off an early Britney Spears record. It was a sparkling example of Sawayama’s skill at turning nostalgic influences into future-facing pop songs with brilliantly candid lyrics.

This continues on ‘SAWAYAMA’. Sawayama worked on this album with regular collaborator Clarence Clarity to mesh modern electronics and experimental instrumentals with a healthy dose of the ‘90s and noughties nostalgia. On her deeply personal debut album she uses genre-splicing to convey different emotion, the sounds channelling Sawayama’s various thematic messages.

Vibrant club track ‘Comme des Garçons (Like The Boys)’, which pays homage to gay men, nods to the noughties dance tracks that made Sawayama feel confident in her youth. The album’s only ballad, ‘Chosen Family’, produced by PC Music’s Danny L Harle, is a poignant dedication to the queer community, whom Sawayama considers family. Her she combines lilting country instrumentals with poetic lyrics: “We don’t need to share genes or a surname / You are… my chosen family”.

Perhaps the most striking thing about ‘SAWAYAMA’ is the way in which its author uses nu-metal to channel rage. On the glittering ‘XS’, a takedown of the lavish lives of the affluent, she juxtaposes sugary vocals and N.E.R.D.-influenced production with brash metal guitar stabs. “When all that’s left is immaterial… The price we paid is unbelievable”, she notes.

On truly raging ‘STFU!’ she puts furious furious nu-metal at the front-and-centre, while the stadium-shaking ‘Who’s Gonna Save U Now?’ sees Sawayama slam an ex she’s fed up of forgiving: “You burned the bridges / And drained the river / I can’t forgive ya like I did before”. With her unique interpretation of nu-metal, she’s forged a fresh sound drenched in familiarity.

Sometimes Sawayama focusses on specific memories. ‘Paradisin’’ is a neon-bright trip of bubble-gum pop and Nintendo synths on which she recounts AWOL teenage days spent hanging out with mates; her concerned mum would log into her MSN to interrogate her pals until they revealed her daughter’s location. The song sounds like a video game, reflecting the cat and mouse game she played with her mother.

‘Bad Friend’, a soaring slice of earnest pop, sees the star grapple with feelings of guilt about falling out of touch with a close mate: “Don’t ask me where I’ve been / Been avoiding everything / ‘Cause I’m a bad friend”. And then there’s ‘Dynasty’, a song about intergenerational pain that was inspired by her parent’s divorce. “I’m a dynasty / The pain in my vein is hereditary” she reveals over lavish instrumentals that echo like a church service.

From the raucous nu-metal to glittering R&B, ‘SAWAYAMA’ is an honest, genre-exploding self-portrait. Drawing on every aspect of her identity, Sawayama creates an expansive musical account of her personal history, all bolstered by her impressive experimental song-writing techniques. And on top of that, she’s somehow managed to make nu-metal sound effortlessly cool.


Release date: April 17

Record label: Dirty Hit