Review: Rina Sawayama's Debut Album Blends Pop Eras To Tell A Story Of Identity On her self-titled debut album, Rina Sawayama borrows from all corners of the pop world to explore depression, her fight to preserve her Japanese heritage and the legacy of family strife.
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Rina Sawayama Embraces The Pain On Her Beautifully Messy Debut

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Rina Sawayama Embraces The Pain On Her Beautifully Messy Debut

Review

Music Reviews

Rina Sawayama Embraces The Pain On Her Beautifully Messy Debut

Rina Sawayama Embraces The Pain On Her Beautifully Messy Debut

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/836119651/840522677" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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On her self-titled debut album, Rina Sawayama borrows from all corners of the pop world to explore depression, her fight to preserve her Japanese heritage and the legacy of family strife. Hendrik Schneider/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Hendrik Schneider/Courtesy of the artist

On her self-titled debut album, Rina Sawayama borrows from all corners of the pop world to explore depression, her fight to preserve her Japanese heritage and the legacy of family strife.

Hendrik Schneider/Courtesy of the artist

Rina Sawayama has always straddled different worlds and her debut album, SAWAYAMA, is no different. It's a wild blend of genres that helps tell a deeply personal — and sometimes painful — story about family and identity.

Born in Japan and raised in London, the singer studied politics and psychology at Cambridge, then did some modeling before setting her sights on pop stardom. Sawayama's fight to reconcile her British and Japanese identities underscores the entire project. Sawayama's parents immigrated to the U.K. when she was 5 and her struggle to fit in was made worse by her parents' bitter divorce.

On "Dynasty," she sings about the pain and trauma that our families can unwittingly pass on to us. Sawayama weaves this tale of family and forgiveness using a whole rainbow of sonic textures. House music and hair metal mingle with R&B and electro-pop. On "Akasaka Sad," she reaches out to her parents again — this time through the bouncing and frantic energy of a Timbaland hit from the '90s.

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The album's lead single "STFU" is a beautiful mess of a song. It fuses the explosive rage of early 2000s nu-metal bands with the sugar-sweet delivery of a young Britney Spears. It's a big, fat middle finger to the racism and microaggressions Sawayama has dealt with living in the U.K.

It's not all doom and gloom. Sawayama is skilled at balancing moments of vulnerability with flashes of theater and campy joy. On "Commes Des Garcon," the former model is all sleek, chic and undeniably cool. Her confidence cuts through the tension she's built up so far like a hot knife through butter.

The pop world doesn't always make space for people of color, let alone a pansexual, Asian woman whose sonic influences range from Destiny's Child to System Of A Down. Instead of waiting for the green light, Sawayama created a space for herself with an album unafraid to tackle her darkest moments: her battle with depression, her fight to preserve her Japanese heritage, the legacy of hurt inherited from family, all those ugly, disparate things that are made beautiful once we make sense of them.

And Rina Sawayama has made something truly beautiful.