Artist: Rina Sawayama
Album: RINA EP
In Brief: You can call it pop, you can call it youthful, you can call it a throwback… you can even call it teenybopper if you want. Just don’t call it shallow. While this isn’t a style I dabble in often, I appreciate Rina’s smart commentary on contemporary Internet culture, wrapped up in the popular sounds of her own childhood from before social media was even a thing.
So, this was a weird one for me to stumble across. Rina Sawayama, a model turned singer/songwriter, born in Japan and raised in England, put out her self-titled Extended Play last year, and I have to say I’ve been spinning it quite a bit over the last few months. Her style is decidedly pop with a strong hint of R&B, and those already aren’t genres I dabble in much, but I dabbled in them even less back at the turn of the century, when boy bands and feisty Mouseketeers and their ilk were at peak popularity. That’s the era Rina seems to draw from most in her music, which you’d think would have been a tough sell for me. But I’ve found that when there’s a little willingness to experiment – with hints at crossovers into other genres, with interesting chord progressions and mid-song change-ups, and with a producer such as Clarence Clarity who knows how to help construct a one-of-a-kind wall of sound for such an artist – then I’m totally game. It helps that Rina is a strong songwriter, touching on issues of how modern technology affects our relationships, as well as how she is perceived in the industry as an Asian female. None of this is too heavy-handed, which makes her music enjoyable on a surface level and a deeper one as well. She’s only got 24 minutes, 6 songs, and 2 interludes to impress potential new fans on this EP, and the results are honestly strong enough to make me wish she’d get the opportunity to expand this out into a full-length album.
But then there’s the issue of first impressions. This is one of those records that starts out pretty middle-of-the-road, to be honest, and gets more twisty and turny from there. The first track I heard when I queued this thing up on Spotify for the first time was not impressive, and it hasn’t grown on me over time. I would say that the first two tracks here are the most “teenybopper” in terms of their sound, with the second having a little more lyrical bite to it. From there on down, it becomes more of a musical stew, pulling in occasional bits of rock influence while reflecting some of the more sophisticated side of 90s R&B. That’s much more my speed. I’ll confess that it’s a genre I don’t know a whole hell of a lot about… but I’m enjoying what I’m hearing. Please do keep that in mind if what you’re hearing sounds like warmed-over Britney Spears at first… I promise you it gets a lot better.
1. Ordinary Superstar
Alright, so I’ve already made my opinion on this first song pretty clear before even getting into the meat of the review. I don’t like it. I think it’s a poor introduction to an otherwise promising artist. Judging it on just the music alone, I suppose it does a pretty good job of warning the listener right away that this is unapologetic, synthesized, nostalgic, youthful, bouncy, pop music. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that, but if you’re gonna do that, you need a hook that really grabs people. For a pop song, this has such a flat and unimaginative melody and chord progression that I’m almost tempted to think a mediocre pop/punk act with crossover aspirations might have recorded it as a B-side in the early 2000s. The fluffy pink synths might disguise it, but listen to those dull, chugging guitars in the background and tell me there isn’t a bit of wannabe Avril Lavigne action going on there. But the real kicker is the lyrics. Rina wants to introduce herself to the world by drawing a line in the sand between out-of-touch celebrities and “real” people and placing herself firmly on the “real” side. And that’s well intentioned and everything, but I would only have found any depth in the way she expresses it if I was like, fourteen years old and this was literally the first time I’d heard a pop singer promising me she wouldn’t let fame go to her head. As she addresses a girl on the other side of the screen who apparently used to be a friend and who shuns Rina now that she’s become a big pop star, platitudes abound such as “We’re living in a world that’s full of hate” and “You’re living in a cloud with no rain.” Just in case it wasn’t clear that celebrities are supposed to be real people too, y’all, there’s even a spoken word intro that tells us “Underneath it all, we’re all human beings”, making sure the moral of the story comes through loud and clear before we’ve even heard the story. This all seems a bit presumptuous. Perhaps she’s written this song to promise herself she won’t let fame go to her head once her career takes off, and I guess I could accept something like this as self-aware commentary once an artist had achieved fame, at least if the songwriting dug a bit deeper. But homegirl doesn’t even have an AllMusic page yet, so this song is even more jarring and out of place than my use of the word “homegirl” in this sentence.
2. Take Me As I Am
You know those cheesy keyboard hits you’d hear back in the heyday of boy bands like N-Sync and the Backstreet Boys? It’s a tricky sound for me to describe, but you know it when you hear it. Those are all over this song, and I actually don’t think that’s a bad thing. Upping the tempo makes this one feel more like a workout, the kind of thing where you can imagine a whole choreograhy routine with sweaty backup dancers. At this point my first time through the EP, I was starting to think I had been punked by the other critics whose reviews had piqued my interest in her music, but I hung on and realized there was a bit more depth to this one. Lyrically, she’s coming out swinging, addressing folks who expect based on her appearance that they can exploit her sexuality and corral her into behaving like a walking stereotype, and she doesn’t mince words: “Don’t underestimate me/Make me feel like I ain’t okay/Your bullshit ain’t fooling me/One man false economy/Underappreciated/Make me feel like I ain’t okay/Your high praise ain’t feeding me/One girl false autonomy.” I figure this makes it clear enough that she’s not just doing a song and dance for the Radio Disney crowd. Her frustration is coming from an understandable place where a lot of minorities in showbiz probably have similar stories to tell – getting booked for a modeling gig and finding out she had to wear geisha gear and serve tea, that sort of thing. The song doesn’t reference race directly, but it’s implicit in the song’s title: Take me as I am. Not as a young girl you can sexualize, not as a theme park shorthand for an exotic country you’ve never been to. And I love that message. It needs to be heard. Clarence’s production, throwing in some odd percussion sounds and a brief guitar solo, certainly helps to sweeten the deal, and Rina really sticks the landing when her voice seems to leap out above the clouds as the bridge climaxes, only to jump back into the chorus in a completely different key. I love sneaky little pop music tricks like that, which demonstrate a little thinking outside the box while still being catchy as hell.
Whoa. This one really caught me off guard. The drum programming kicks it off in such grand style that it’s like I’ve just been Rickrolled, except I’m happy about it instead of irritated. The production is quite deliberately dated, with all of it busy metallic sounds bringing back memories of the 80s, while the guitar riff that cuts in here and there feels like something we might have considered edgy in a pop song released in the early 90s. (And that guitar solo that shows up later… yow! It’s short, but it’s a fun little bit of shredding.) It’s a mish-mash of old sounds in which the sum of the parts feels fresher than just a simple homage to one specific style. And when this has gotten you ready for a non-stop party, the lyrics start to sink in and you realize this is actually a pretty sad song. The numbers in the title apparently refer to increasing doses of an antidepressant, and there’s a spoken word bridge between the chorus and verse that maps these doses to different emotional cycles she went through while on the medication – “Happy, sad, crazy, numb.” The melody here is a pretty strong one – “Take Me As I Am” may have provided the action, but this one puts some soul into its dramatic dips and turns, all while keeping the tempo up to make it feel like more of an emotional roller coaster – presumably making this a ballad would have given the impression that it was wall-to-wall sadness, so this is a good move. From how she describes the experience of being medicated for so long, being praised by people around her but not really feeling like herself most of the time, it seems like a miserable and downright violating experience, perhaps worse than the depression it was supposed to help her work through. I’ve seen this sort of thing firsthand. This song definitely hits harder than you think it’s going to from the initial setup.
4. Tunnel Vision
This may well be the smartest song Rina’s got to offer on this EP. It’s certainly the first one that made me stop and listen more carefully to the lyrics. It’s set up like a classic 90s R&B slow jam, thanks to guest vocalist Shamir, who’s got enough of a falsetto that his voice and Rina’s are at pretty much the same pitch. Still, you can tell the two apart easily enough, and the duet they’re singing isn’t so much about romance, but rather about a superficial friendship where they realize they’re both fully aware of everything going on in each other’s lives, but there’s so much other information at both of their fingertips that they either don’t care all that much about each other, or don’t know how to show it beyond the convenient click of a button. Shamier’s verse is especially cutting: “Emotions are too much for me/So I spread my love through likes/I didn’t even leave my house last week/But I know what you did last night.” I also love how Rina’s verse mentions having “one hundred tabs” open in her mind – there’s so much multitasking going on that she’s hardly sleeping, and it’s largely due to this addiction to her device. I don’t think “technology is bad for us” should be the take-away here – it’s just one of those things where we often don’t realize we need to impose limits for the sake of our own sanity, and I think it hits those of us with addictive/obsessive personalities especially hard. Throughout the song, these two vocalists have been floating quite beautifully on a cloud of gentle synths and a loose, slippery beat, which makes it especially jarring when the song quite suddenly ends with the sound of an iPhone clicking off, implying that the user has finally come to his or her senses, and decided to forego the endless browsing and either go talk to someone or at least get a decent night’s sleep.
5. Time Out (Interlude)
I’m glad that two of these songs are marked as interludes; otherwise I’d be extremely annoyed when they ended just as I was really getting into them. This upbeat tune perfectly captures the bounciness of a 90s girl group, promising a fantastical getaway into space, but with the ironic twist that it’s not a romantic getaway – Rina just needs some “me” time and no one else is invited.
Now if I had to pick one sing with which to introduce new listeners to Rina’s music, this would be it. Admittedly I might be biased – she and Clarence have mixed rock and R&B influences on a few tracks before, but this one is where the guitar riffs and the slamming beats hit you hard and fast, giving the song an especially urgent feel. (I want to say it reminds me of EMF‘s “Unbelievable” – not so much the melody of it, but definitely the mixing of genres that does it in a fun way, instead of an arrogant, posturing, “bro-ey” sort of way like all those bands in the late 90s did.) The lyrics, which lightly touch on some racing metaphors, contribute to the overall image I get in my head, of futuristic cars racing down a track in some sort of a classic 16-bit video game. It’s just non-stop fun, and the intent behind it seems to be encouraging someone who has suffered a great loss to consider this a new chapter in their lives, almost liking taking on an alternate persona. The lyrics aren’t as deep here as they have been in the past couple songs, but this one’s an excellent butt-kicker when you just need to get up off of your sad sack and take charge of your life again. This one might pull off an even slicker key change than “Take Me As I Am” did, right in the middle of its bridge, following another kickass guitar solo. Then it slips right back into its original key for the outro, as if nothing happened. God, I love this song!
7. Through the Wire (Interlude)
We’re back in ballad mode as we head into the final stretch. This track starts with the sound of a dial tone, UK-style of course, and when the caller picks up, Rina’s voice sounds a bit distant and foggy, like she’s had a rough night and is confessing her secrets to whoever’s on the other end. This one seems to be about two people who can’t quite admit a relationship’s over, so they go through the motions of breaking up but still pine for each other from afar and fall back into the relationship at their weakest moments. At two minutes, I guess it’s twice as long as “Time Out”, but I’m still left wanting to hear more of how this situation turns out.
8. Cyber Stockholm Syndrome
The closing song is another one of Rina’s most fascinating. It starts as a lonely piano ballad and evolves to something entirely different in just three minutes and change. The way it deals with the break between a person’s real-life personality and the one they’ve constructed for themselves online almost serves as a counterpoint to “Tunnel Vision”, and there’s a notable mood change in the song to represent this. At first she’s just a lonely girl in a club, at arms’ length from the scene around her, too nervous to approach anyone and hoping not to be noticed. Yet with her phone in her hand, she gains a boldness that she doesn’t seem to feel in “real life”. Are these interactions unreal? Is she experiencing a type of freedom or is she falling in love with her electronic captor? The song seems to lend itself to multiple interpretations. And I love how it explodes into a world of dizzying color as the song picks up steam. You may think you know where it’s going from those first few piano chords and the water drop beats that every R&B group seemed to mess around with back in the day, but as the beat starts to morph from slow jam into something more energetic and danceable, it’s hard to tell if our protagonist is gradually losing herself or discovering herself. Once again, her melodies are on point, and she hits a few sweet spots here that remind me of similar mashups between 90s nostalgia and modern pop sensibility on a few of Kimbra‘s songs. When this song finally hits the glass ceiling, bursts through it, and fades off into the stratosphere, this listener is left aching for more. Please let this be the prelude to a full-length LP that you’re gonna drop this year, Rina. The world needs to hear so much more of you!
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Ordinary Superstar -$.25
Take Me As I Am $1.25
Tunnel Vision $1.75
Time Out (Interlude) $.50
Through the Wire (Interlude) $.50
Cyber Stockholm Syndrome $1.75
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: