Get used to hearing Rina Sawayama’s name in every conversation about what’s hot in pop this year. The Japan-born, U.K.-raised singer-model’s debut album, Sawayama, is a thrilling musical adventure, expertly referencing the chaos of Top 40 at the turn of the century without getting too hung up on the nostalgia of it all. Combining crunchy nu-metal guitar riffs with a penchant for early-aughts R&B-pop production in the vein of Aaliyah and ‘NSync, Sawayama sounds like Britney Spears’ Blackout by way of Korn — and it inexplicably works.
Sawayama’s debut comes off of her breakthroughs with the buzzy 2017 EP, Rina, and the juicy 2018 single “Cherry.” Both zeroed in on the R&B-pop side of her, mixing soulfully delivered, punchy hooks with dreamy synths, prime for Wade Robson choreography. Thankfully, the pop-princess side of Sawayama hasn’t disappeared on her new LP; here, she proudly holds up her musical freak flag without letting that tiara hit the ground.
She comes out of the gate with musical gut punches: The opening trio of tracks are ferocious avant-pop masterpieces on which 29-year-old exorcizes her demons above mosh-pit-friendly riffs. “Dynasty” gets the party started with a bop about intergenerational pain that few could effectively pull off in a way that is as empowering as it is truthful and raw. By the stellar “STFU!” she goes full Deftones with a simple request (“Have you ever thought about taping your big mouth shut?/‘Cause I have many times, many times”) that is both incendiary and silly in its delivery.
On the more purely R&B-pop side, Sawayama is able to equally pull off the power ballads with the same amount of effortless “Fuck you, I do what I want” energy: “Akasaka Sad” is a breakup song right out of A Nightmare Before Christmas, and “Bad Friend” is a heartstring-tugging self-reflection that could sonically fit in on either of Ariana Grande’s recent albums.
Incredibly, each song on Sawayama sounds like the type of music you dream of hearing at an unbearably cool party, meticulously unique and fun from second to second. Take the pivot from the Eighties glam rock of “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” which transitions seamlessly into the sparkly synth-pop of “Tokyo Love Hotel.” On the single “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys),” though, she makes the best case for her to become the new decade’s reigning dance-floor diva, cooing, “Excuse my ego/Can’t go incognito/Every time you see me/It’s like winning big in Reno.” Oddly enough, that’s how it feels to listen to each of her songs, as well.