The 50 best albums of 2020, No 3: Rina Sawayama – Sawayama

Sawayama picks her way through formative musical loves to produce a risk-taking musical cocktail of R&B, goth rock and video game soundtracks

Rina Sawayama’s debut album should be a mess – the kind of idea that looks interesting on paper, but sounds horrendous coming out of your speakers. Its musical influences are the product of that preteen period when you love music indiscriminately, or at least without worrying what it says about you, what your friends like, what’s deemed cool or how certain genres define themselves against each other.

Sawayama was born in 1990, which means she hit that period at the turn of the millennium. Her debut album is the sound of someone who absorbed early 2000s pop culture letting her memories gush out – a world where Britney Spears happily coexists with nu-metal; where a love of Destiny’s Child and Timbaland’s futuristic take on hip-hop and R&B doesn’t preclude devotion to the mock-operatic goth rock of Evanescence; when video game soundtracks become as indelible as whatever’s on the radio. The soundtrack of Final Fantasy finds its way into Sawayama closer Snakeskin; the music on Paradisin’ feels like it’s emanating from a Nintendo, and Akasaka Sad blends futuristic R&B with the day-glow electronic din of an amusement arcade. If you were forced to describe her debut as succinctly as possible, you’d probably opt for a pop/R&B/nu-metal hybrid with a dose of stadium-rock bombast, which sounds like the winning entry in a competition to find the most appalling genre-fusion in musical history.

Rina Sawayama: XS – video

But that doesn’t account for the skill with which Sawayama picks her way through her formative musical loves, and how adept she is at arranging them as dynamically explosive contrasts – as on XS’s jump cut from a frantically strummed acoustic guitar that recalls Destiny’s Child’s Independent Women to heavy distorted riffing – nor how skilled she is at mixing elements that shouldn’t work together. A sweet pop melody somehow fits over music that sounds like Korn on STFU! and an ecstatic synth line chatters away in the background of the guitar-heavy Who’s Gonna Save U Now? An off-beam, idiosyncratic musical cocktail that should only work inside Sawayama’s head turns out to work perfectly in real life, in the process setting her completely apart from anything else that is happening in pop.

There is a persuasive argument that the music that you love before adolescence irrevocably shapes you, which fits with Sawayama’s overriding lyrical themes: “You can’t fix me, you can’t win,” as Love Me 4 Me puts it. You could loosely categorise Sawayama as an album about self-discovery, if that didn’t make it sound far more preachy and boring than it actually is. Its explorations of racial and sexual identity never feel cliched, partly because they often delve into areas that pop music previously hasn’t – Tokyo Love Hotel’s examination of the western fetishisation of Japanese culture – but mostly because they’re either sharp and witty (“Have you ever thought about taping your big mouth shut / ’Cause I have, many times,” snaps STFU) or moving, as on Chosen Family’s heartfelt paean to fraternity in the LGBTQ+ community.

So what should have theoretically been a mess turns out to be one of 2020’s most striking and unique pop albums, the kind of risk-taking debut that gets you excited at what the artist behind it might come up with next: a glittering success made out of the most unlikely ingredients.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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