There are few things that aren’t unique about the Japanese born singer and model Rina Sawayama. Her first project RINA, referred to by herself as a mini-album, has caused a quiet storm since its release in late October and received countless comparisons to the sounds of millennial pop; a genre that has been fondly remembered but not yet brought back up to date. The London based artist also displays influences of R&B and rock on this tape, and thanks to the luxurious production from her accomplice Clarence Clarity, breaths life back into these sounds in a way that’s nostalgic yet fresh. Being a female east Asian artist in western music is another rarity that Sawayama learnt to embrace, naturally, the project reflects on this with themes surrounding identity, insecurity and empowerment.
The album’s rock ballad opener ‘Ordinary Superstar’ approaches Sawayama’s new situation in the limelight, seemingly unable fit into this extraordinary and unfamiliar world of impending pop-stardom. This plays a stark contrast to ‘Take Me as I Am’, a cut that expresses techno-pop among a much more fierce vocal performance aimed at uncompromised self-acceptance, with a killer bridge at the tail end of the song which prevents the track from going stale. ‘Tunnel Vision’ featuring Shamir contains subdued and enthralling production, allowing for the two angelic voices to shine and intertwine while speaking on feeling stuck in the online world. Achieving “Notification happiness” is compared to “spinning plates,” the pressures of social media is something Sawayama is particularly vocal on.
The popstar is a big fan of gaming, an influence most visible on ‘Alterlife’, a song that’s powerful electric guitar takes you straight into a video game montage. Supported by a jubilant and triumphant chorus, the lyrics emphasise Sawayama’s effort to not be “so scared of falling” and to make the most of all her new opportunities. The closing track ‘Cyber Stockholm Syndrome’ brings together everything that’s great about RINA, deep layers of sweet production to match the clean vocals that Sawayama has showcased so brilliantly. R&B steps to the forefront giving nostalgic flashbacks to destiny’s child in all the best ways on the hook where she sings “came here on my own // party on my phone.” It’s clear that Sawayama has difficulty connecting to the world outside of her online presence, yet she still feels isolated there, stuck between her two realities.
Perhaps the only thing that leaves me lacking on this tape is Sawayama’s inability to express true vulnerability on songs that are obviously about conflicts of confidence and identity. I felt this specifically on ‘10-20-40’ where she doesn’t appear to provide much versatility or emotion for a track that’s central focus is isolation.
All things considered, however, RINA is an extremely promising project for the young pop star. I can’t stress enough that Clarity’s production on the album is equally as crucial to its success as her vocal performances, if not more. Yet, the pair has crafted a unique sound in the heavily saturated pop market, who knows the heights they can reach.
Rina Sawayama plays Borderline London on 28/03/2018.
Her Debut mini-album RINA is out now.By Joel Landschaft-Singe