The Week In Pop

Rina Sawayama Is A British-Japanese Nu-Metal Pop Star In The Making

Shut the fuck up!

Do I have your attention? This is one of many reasons “STFU!” was a perfect lead single. Right there in the title, Rina Sawayama reels you in, gives you a taste of her attitude, piques your interest. It gets much more startling once you actually hear the music: gnarled detuned guitar riffs, a rhythm section popping and grinding like malfunctioning factory equipment, villainous cackles that bleed into unhinged operatic melodies. Only when the Korn clatter recedes and an inspirational Britney Spears song breaks out does Sawayama cut loose with the song’s profane catchphrase. “Have you ever thought of taping your mouth shut?” she later sings prettily. “Because I have many times.”

The video completes the package. It begins with a cringe-inducing date between Sawayama — who was born in Japan and raised in London — and a bearded, bespectacled white hipster. He expresses surprise that she sings in English. He brings up Lucy Liu and Sandra Oh and says she reminds him of “literally either — but you’re like a… like a sexier version.” He talks up a Japanese restaurant at Heathrow that’s a cut above because they employ more actual Asians. “I’m currently writing, like, a fan-fiction piece, but from the perspective of, like, a little Japanese woman,” he tells her. “It’s kind of like a new-age Memoirs Of A Geisha, which is kinda cool — but, with a little more action. I mean, I’m obviously indebted culturally to Kill Bill.”

All the while, Sawayama sits there looking increasingly uncomfortable and perturbed, like she can’t believe this is happening but also can totally believe this has happened, again. By the time the guy accidentally flicks a piece of rice in her eye while pretending to do martial arts with his chopsticks, reaches over to wipe it away (“a little kamikaze mission”), and questions whether she’s racially mixed while stretching his eyes into slits, the sonic violence breaks out. So does a colorful procession of writhing, preening, taunting imagery — Sawayama’s fantasized reaction to this clueless asshole. If a music video is ultimately a commercial selling you on an artist, this one is an unqualified success: the Rina Sawayama experience rendered in vivid, appealing detail.

SAWAYAMA, the debut album she released last week, is not always so potent. But its highs are many, and it presents Sawayama as both a genuine original and a star in the making. Part of the reason it stands out is because it’s telling a story not often told in the context of bombastically sparkling pop music. In a mission statement of sorts, Sawayama writes, “The album ultimately is about family and identity. It’s about understanding yourself in the context of two opposing cultures (for me British and Japanese), what ‘belonging’ means when home is an evolving concept, figuring out where you sit comfortably within and awkwardly outside of stereotypes, and ultimately trying to be ok with just being you, warts and all.”

This conflict plays out from various angles, with varying degrees of specificity. Theatrically rocking opener “Dynasty” explores the sometimes painful child-parent relations of a cross-cultural immigrant. On “Akasaka Sad,” Sawayama wrestles with feeling like an outsider in her birth country over rippling digital R&B that sounds like a PC Music remix of Destiny’s Child. Backed by strobing synths on “Tokyo Love Hotel,” she laments tourists treating Japan like a theme park while wondering if the song itself is contributing to the problem. The heavy-handed would-be tearjerker “Chosen Family,” while specifically dedicated to the LGBTQ community, could apply to anyone who’s found belonging after feeling like a freak: “We don’t need to be related to relate/ We don’t need to share genes or a surname.” (For a superior Sawayama queer anthem, try her pansexual coming-out party “Cherry” from 2018.) The scope gets even broader on the darkly glamorous “Work Bitch”-style catwalk soundtrack “Comme Des Garçons (Like The Boys),” conceptualized as “a club fashion banger that makes you feel like THAT bitch whoever you are.”

There is more than one culture clash happening on this album. As Sawayama navigates the significant differences between two island nations, she also builds a bridge between the pop and hard rock sounds of the early 21st century, strip-mining the aughts for the materials to build something captivatingly new. In a manner that mirrors Rosalía’s partnership with El Guincho, Sawayama works closely with producer Clarence Clarity, an experimental oddball whose music skews and splices the recent past. But whereas there’s a haunting, nauseous quality to Clarity’s own output — like, say, a vaporwave-R&B power ballad called “Bloodbarf” set to magazine covers with Justin Timberlake’s eyes blacked out — his collaborations with Sawayama push past the uncanny valley into sleek professionalism.

They’ve barged into uncharted territory. Others such as Grimes and Poppy have hybridized pop and nu-metal, but the combination has rarely sounded as defiantly mainstream as it does under Sawayama’s care. She is unmistakably a pop singer, but one whose music is sometimes laced with an aggro ugliness that once functioned as the foil for such pristine sounds on TRL. Yet she strikes her balance in a way that maintains the jarring tension between the genres, so that SAWAYAMA never turns into a clumsy redux of t.A.T.u.’s “All The Things She Said.” Her devotion to this moment in pop history is rare as well, or at least ahead of the curve. While the likes of Dua Lipa, Soccer Mommy, and Sawayama’s labelmates the 1975 have played around with ’00s throwbacks lately, none have delved so thoroughly into the decade’s aesthetic with such forward-thinking results. Perhaps the wrong album was titled Future Nostalgia.

The commitment to 29-year-old Sawayama’s formative era is impressive. “Dynasty” comes soaring in with a goth theater-kid energy not seen since the height of Evanescence, power chords ringing out to the horizon, cymbals crashing with wide-open abandon. That’s followed by the satirical capitalist critique “XS,” maybe the album’s high point, on which nasty rock guitar intermittently careens into tight acoustic strums resembling the Neptunes’ production on Timberlake’s “Like I Love You.” The influence of early Lady Gaga is readily apparent, most clearly in the struts, growls, and glory notes Sawayama unleashes while “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” detonates the barrier between live rock concert and vogue ball. (Stick around for the key change.)

Not every callback on SAWAYAMA dates directly to the 2000s. “Love Me 4 Me” gets a jolt of Dirty-era Xtina energy, but its roller-rink hip-hop sound traces to the ’90s. The only part of “Parasidin'” more memorable than Sawayama’s MSN Messenger name-check is a ripping saxophone solo straight out of the ’80s. Although the synth ballad “Bad Friend” takes cues from The OC-era Imogen Heap with its vocoder chorus, it also flashes back directly to a drunken and naked “Call Me Maybe” karaoke session in summer 2012. It’s a reminder that Sawayama also exists in continuum with Carly Rae Jepsen, part of a lineage of pop stars whose passionate online following obscures their lack of certified hits. This album, though, is Sawayama’s bid to go bigger than that, to scale the heights of genuine world-conquering pop stardom — to make you not just shut up but listen and cheer.

CREDIT: Duncan Loudon

CHART WATCH

For the first time since Drake’s Scorpion in 2018, an album has spent four straight weeks at #1. As Billboard reports, that album is the Weeknd’s After Hours, which tops the Billboard 200 again with a relatively meager 75,000 equivalent album units and 20,000 in sales. (Roddy Ricch’s Please Excuse Me For Being Antisocial, #7 on this week’s chart, recently spent four nonconsecutive weeks at #1 spread out across December, January, and February.)

Debuting at #2 with 64,000 units and just 5,000 in sales is Tory Lanez’s The New Toronto 3, which matches the Toronto sing-rapper’s best chart placement. He’s followed by a whole lot of his fellow sing-rappers: Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Baby, Bad Bunny, Post Malone, and the aforementioned Roddy Ricch. The Strokes’ big comeback The New Abnormal enters at #8 with 35,000 units and 23,000 in sales, good for their fifth top 10 album. (Their landmark 2001 debut Is This It topped out at #33.) Rod Wave and Dua Lipa round out the top 10.

The Weeknd also has the #1 song in the country again. After being bumped to #2 last week by Drake’s “Toosie Slide,” “Blinding Lights” is back on top for a third nonconsecutive week. “Toosie Slide” falls to #2, with Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” and Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” holding at #3 and #4 respectively. Doja Cat’s “Say So” reaches a new #5 peak, followed by Harry Styles’ “Adore You” at #6.

With “Circles” at #7, Post Malone ties his own record for most weeks in the top 10 at 33. Besides Post and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower (Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse),” the record is shared by Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” and Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s “Girls Like You.” It seems likely that “Circles” will claim the record for itself next week. The rest of the top 10: Future and Drake’s “Life Is Good,” Justin Bieber and Quavo’s “Intentions,” and Billie Eilish’s “everything i wanted.”

POP FIVE

Sam Smith & Demi Lovato – “I’m Ready”
This is more like bronze-medal quality but it could have been way more boring or annoying, so, credit where it’s due.

Kelly Clarkson – “I Dare You”
Is the dare to make it to the end of the song without tuning out? Clarkson’s country ballad from Trolls World Tour wipes the floor with this.

Thomas Wesley – “Do Si Do” (Feat. Blanco Brown)
Not surprising: After coasting off the success of “Old Town Road,” Diplo has linked up with “The Git Up” country-rapper Blanco Brown for a song that invokes “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” within the first minute. Surprising: “Do Si Do” is quite a bit better than Diplo’s “Old Town Road” remix and maybe better than “The Git Up” too.

Lauren Jauregui – “50ft.”
Camila Cabello is the biggest star, and Normani has the most upside, but Lauren Jauregui may be low-key assembling the best singles catalog out of the Fifth Harmony.

Brad Paisley – “No I In Beer”
Whenever I worry Sam Hunt is leaning a little too heavily on country clichés, a song like this one comes around to remind me what that really sounds like. Still, I admire Brad Paisley’s ability to bust out with such a fully fleshed out idea on such short notice. “Drinking is a team sport and we all need a drink right now but we can’t be together so let’s do it remotely and look forward to next year” is an impressive amount of depth for such a hokey, jokey country song. And I love the way the bridge evolves the central concept: “There’s no ‘u’ or ‘i’ in beer, that’s right, but there’s about to be a lot of beer in you and I.”

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • One Direction and its non-Zayn members all recently refollowed Zayn Malik on Twitter, leading fans to speculate about a reunion. [Billboard]
  • Katy Perry’s cat Kitty Purry passed away. [Instagram]
  • John Krasinski hosted a virtual prom with performance by Billie Eilish, Jonas Brothers, and Chance the Rapper. [E!]
  • Sam Hunt performed “Hard To Forget” from home on Colbert. [YouTube]
  • And assuming big public events are happening again by then, Hunt will headline the postponed Summerfest in Milwaukee on 9/4. [USA Today]
  • Selena Gomez is suing a mobile gamemaker who ripped off her image on their Clothes Forever – Styling Game. [TMZ]
  • Charli XCX released a video for “Forever.” [YouTube]
  • J Balvin gets shrunk by a leprechaun in his “Verde” video. [YouTube]
  • The Weeknd released a Major Lazer remix of “Blinding Lights.” [YouTube]

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