In poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, he opens with a kind of prayer. “Let me begin again./ Dear Ma,” he writes, slipping off “the shoes of [his] voice” as he enters the page. In so doing, he acknowledges that he is not a first, but an again—one in a long line of stories and storytellers that preceded him.
This is also, in a sense, what British pop balladeer Rina Sawayama does on her debut full-length, SAWAYAMA (2020). From the outset, she addresses her ancestors and the traumas that have “been living in our lives, passed on down family lines” (“Dynasty”). In contrast to mini-album RINA (2017), which introduced the artist as shiny cyberpop auteur, SAWAYAMA peels back the glossy veneer to reveal the frayed and twisting wiring underneath. In shifting her album title from first name to last name, Sawayama deliberately places her story within a longer lineage. Sonically, this manifests as both a broadening and a deepening of her musical palette. On RINA, she filtered twinkling synths and catchy pop hooks through a soft-focus lens, drawing primarily on late-’90s/early-’00s pop production. On SAWAYAMA, that particular pop vernacular is still at play, but she takes a more maximalist approach, one that is also unmistakably queer: dramatic in its sonic gestures, uncompromising in its emotional truth, extra all around.
On opening track, “Dynasty,” Rina links her own hurt to that of her mother’s and father’s. A leaden drumbeat falls and echoes, as bells toll, and Rina’s voice, a clarion, proclaims, “I’m a dynasty/ The pain in my vein is hereditary […] Won’t you break the chain with me?” The question drops, cymbals crash, and she thrashes towards heavy-metal catharsis. On “Akasaka Sad,” Sawayama again traces the scars of intergenerational trauma as they follow her from London to Akasaka. At one point, she even raps in Japanese. Her choppy, trochaic delivery, while dated in its mimicry of mid-2010s Southern rap, effectively mirrors her experience of internal fracture. Between mechanized whirs and SOPHIE-esque blorps, her attempt to flee grief sounds like a machine headed for meltdown.
Inextricable from the artist’s grief and rage is her status as “other,” as a (queer) Japanese woman in British society. On lead single “STFU!,” she pushes back against Western fantasies of what and who she is, alternating between Evanescence-like heavy metal kiss-offs and sickly sweet requests to, “Shut the fuck up ^_^” (smiley added for emphasis). On album closer “Snakeskin,” Rina embodies that feeling of being dehumanized, by likening herself to a snake whose skin is worn as “branded repayment” (hello, Gucci et al). A theatric, Phantom-of-the-Opera-meets-dubstep mash-up, the song takes on a Frankensteinian quality that, while not entirely pleasant to listen to, does successfully recall the horrors of cultural appropriation and commodification of pain.
Nowhere is this more acutely felt than on album standout “Tokyo Love Hotel.” Buoyed by a warm, mid-tempo house beat and twinkling synths reminiscent of Robyn’s “Hang With Me” (equally, CRJ’s “Run Away With Me”), the track appears to evoke the feeling of a loose, breezy night under city lights: “You got that something that everyone wants/ You got that movie star glow,” Rina sings to 東京. But then, the turn: “You got them asking to have you on their skin/ Even though…they don’t know you like I know you…/ Use you for one night and then away they go.” In this way, “Tokyo Love Hotel” is both a love letter to the city that has come to represent her homeland and a lament for the ways in which it has become fetishized and “trendy,” a symbol of quirky, cosmopolitan cool rooted in Orientalism. There is a deep sense of loss and a desire to protect that which she has fought all her life to accept: her culture, and by extension, her self.
This in turn leads to one of the central questions of the album: what is the relationship between one’s culture and one’s pain? What happens when they are one and the same? If, as Cathy Park Hong writes in Minor Feelings, you are raised by a kind of love that is inextricable from pain, and if that too—the thing that surely only you can lay claim to—gets co-opted…what then?
Even as Sawayama grapples with these questions, she is able to find solace by turning to her community, specifically her queer community. “Chosen Family” is an ode to just that. A demonstration of Rina’s balladic range, the track also features what sounds like a brief cameo from fellow pop chanteuse, Shamir (which, if true, would be a clever callback to their RINA collab, “Tunnel Vision”). Sonically, SAWAYAMA is saturated with queer signifiers. Club banger “Comme des Garçons,” which also got a Pablo Vittar remix, recalls the classic Mr. Fingers deep house cut, “Mystery of Love” (originally played in the Black gay Chicago warehouses of the 80s and sampled much later by Kanye on “Fade”). Rina struts confidently across the track, listing off designer names and demanding that magazines, “Elevate your vision when you put me on your cover.” A related but different kind of bombast is on display in album single “XS.” The song is a tongue-in-cheek satire of capitalist consumption, drawing on “Oops!…I Did It Again”-era Max Martin production, aka the epitome of manufactured pop excess (see also: RINA’s very Britney “Take Me As I Am”). While there are times that the musical tropes Rina uses feel pretty on-the-nose, they’re also always delivered with intentionality and conviction.
Indeed, there is something powerful in the way that Sawayama, in all her gaysian femme splendor, owns her choices and refuses to shy away from her own greatness. On the anthemic “Who’s Gonna Save U Now,” she presents herself as arena-sized rock star, employing rock tropes typical of a Bon Jovi or Aerosmith: distorted heavy metal guitar riffs, bass drums on the off-beats, throaty vocals. By inserting herself into this sphere, she stakes claim to a milieu that has historically shut out anyone not a white man. We see then a kind of radical creation and mythologizing of self, which plays out on the album in other ways as well: multiple times, for instance, she is the radio star of her own making. The first time we hear “Paradisin’”—a nostalgic “Ocean Avenue” callback that retraces her early 2000s adolescence—it is being played as a song within the song, on what sounds like a car radio. Similarly, at the end of “Fuck This World (Interlude),” a radio dial combs through stations playing cuts from 2017’s RINA (specifically, “Take Me As I Am” and “10-20-40“). Yet, perhaps the most remarkable recognition of her own power can be found by returning once again to the beginning:
When Rina Sawayama declares herself a dynasty in the opening moments of the record, she acknowledges that there was a beginning to her story that preceded her and that there will be an end to come after. Rather than seeing this as reason for despair, she chooses to push forward while she can, to create a world in which her queerness is celebrated, her Asian rage justified, her relationship to self seen not just for its bruises but also its beauty. Dear Ma, she is saying, let me begin again. And this time, let it be glorious.