"Sawayama," the eponymous album by Rina Sawayama, was released at the height of the quarantine. Bereft of the standard touring and publicity that comes with album releases, Sawayama has largely been promoting the album via social media.
But this album, honestly? Caught fire the moment it came out. It'd be considered a cult favorite if it weren't for the fact that it represents the future of (mainstream) pop.
Sawayama is a London-based artist born and partially raised in Japan. Not quite an overnight sensation, Rina Sawayama began her music career singing in a hip hop band whilst attending Cambridge University. She officially launched her own music in 2013.
The wide breadth of life experiences that she sings about is mirrored in her ability to expertly incorporate and blend several different musical genres in her album; all of which are held together by her undeniable vocal prowess. The early '90s pop and R&B blend of "Love Me 4 Me" sits opposite from the heavy, nu-metal sounds of "STFU!". "Comme Des Garcons (Like The Boys)" stands apart (quite tantalizingly) as a piece born from early 2000's house music.
You could say the topics she sings about are a mix between Gen-Z existential dread with the maturity of a millennial finally on the other side of 25. In "Akasaka Sad," she sings of traveling back to the motherland miserable and vulnerable. She "flew here to escape / but I feel the same...sucks to be me / sucks to be lonely."
This is an experience that many children of the Asian Diaspora can relate to—feeling unrooted in the place of our birth and hoping that a visit to the motherland would finally give us a solid ground on which to build an identity. Sadly, as the song also attests to, this couldn't be further from the truth, as you can be left with more questions and confusion than answers and clarity.
But Sawayama finds redemption with age and the relentless pursuit of her truth. Sawayama comes out on top with "Paradisin'," where she sings about her troubled teenage years under a strict single mother. Its über-pop beat sounds like it's coming straight at you from those Japanese photo booths, but really is an adult Sawayama celebrating how harmless teenage angst is in the grand scheme of things.
"Chosen Family" is as an ode to her queer identity, while "Tokyo Love Hotel" is an admission of acceptance of her Japanese heritage after deliberately distancing herself from it. She realizes her mistake (and even becomes protective of the culture) claiming, "they don't know you like i know you / no they don't."
No musical artist of hyphenated Asian heritage comes to mind as having made a mark on the mainstream music of the Western world. They go up against a perpetually alienating perception of Asian citizenship and belonging. PSY and BTS' serve as salient reminders of this point, having obtained immense commercial success in countries where people who look just like them struggle to even make it to the table.
"Sawayama" introduces to us an artist who has done enough internal work to create a voice, a sound, and a perspective that is unique to the hyphenated Asian experience that isn't immediately alienating to outsiders. The artist and the album represent a future where seemingly disparate genres, identities, and experiences can come together to experience commercially successful acceptance in the mainstream. The kind of album that can sit on virtual shelves and just, be.