SAWAYAMA, Deconstructed: A Track-by-Track Breakdown of 2020’s Best Album

If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you’ll know that I ranked Rina Sawayama’s self-titled debut as the best album of 2020. I did a full review of it earlier this year too.

Still, I wanted to revisit the album again and talk about why I love each and every track, along with what they mean to me. It’s an album that’s rooted its way into my life and, honestly, might have taken its spot as my favourite album of all time.

Hopefully this article can inspire you to love this album as much as I do.

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1. Dynasty

What a way to start off the album. The momentous production and Rina’s soaring vocals are a captivating opener, wailing about the generational pain that comes from inheriting her family’s values and history.

“The word ‘dynasty’ is about the inheritance of money, wealth, and a name, and I’ve always grown up being very mystified about my dad’s side because I know they’re very wealthy, but all that’s come of it is pain.” she told Pitchfork.

I’ve seen and heard way too many similar stories from people around me so the song struck a deep chord in me. It’s a depressing reality wrapped in a Evanescence-style performance, which is a very fitting aesthetic to take and kick things off with.

2. XS

How can you not love this song? Perfectly encapsulating the pop-rock aesthetics of 2000s Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, SAWAYAMA‘s 3rd single is a throwback banger that snarkily criticises the capitalistic nature of our world today.

It’s a welcome concept in a genre that often embraces materialism. Paired with the incredibly sticky chorus, Rina gave us a winning combination of nostalgia and retrospection that makes “XS” one of the most memorable pop songs in recent memory.

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3. STFU!

The album’s lead single was also my first in-depth exposure Rina. I had listened to RINA and liked it but never really considered to explore her discography more extensively.

It was the music video that caught my attention. Touching on the theme of racial micro-aggression and wrapping it up in an oh-so-satisfying nu-metal aesthetic, the song became my unofficial anthem for when I fantasize about the times I should have fought back in my own discriminatory situations.

4. Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys)

I was so excited for the 2nd single after “STFU!”, wishing she would go more in that aggressive direction. So it was surprising that it was a house-inspired dance track that, admittedly, isn’t my favourite off the album.

Still, the song grew on me plus it also has my top 3 favourite topics off SAWAYAMA – harboring toxic male tropes to appear confident. Paired with the cheeky nature of Rina’s performance, it’s definitely a cut that sounds way better for me with context.

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5. Akasaka Sad

On my first couple of listens, I really couldn’t get into “Akasaka Sad”. The hyper-pop production is abrasive while the static layering of her vocals made it rather inaccessible for me, cause admittedly I haven’t had that much experience with the genre at the time.

Singing about the alienation she feels from her detachment with Japan and being unable to feel at home in London; over time I began to warm up to the idea that “Akasaka Sad” might be the best track on SAWAYAMA that fuses its theme with its production.

The suffocating feeling of Rina’s lyricism only feels more raw and constricting under the oppressiveness of the beat. Now, I love this song as much as I do my favourites on the album.

6. Paradisin’

Is it weird if I said this song makes me wanna do chores around the house?

A rebellious anthem wrapped in the sound of a 80s television theme song, Rina recounts how she drove her mom crazy as she went against her every wish – going as far as to lying about her time as a groupie for a band she was a fan of.

The almost TV show-like drama of the narrative is made even more potent through the aesthetic she took, you can almost picture her getting drunk with her friends in a taxi as her mom loses her mind over where her daughter is; all while the opening credits, soundtracked by “Paradisin'”, rolls onscreen.

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7. Love Me 4 Me

If I had to pick the weakest song on the album, it would be this one. There’s nothing inherently bad here, but there’s this inherent “safeness” here which is disappointing given how expressive and bold the other tracks sound.

Advocating for self-love, “Love Me 4 Me” is endearing but the production leaves quite a lot to be desired with its 90s inspired synth-pop sound that lacks the modern twist that SAWAYAMA embraces.

Still, the pre-chorus and chorus of self-confidence are so delightfully catchy that I can’t help but shout at the top of my lungs.

8. Bad Friend

My #2 single of 2020, I haven’t identified with a song recently as much as I do with “Bad Friend”. Recounting a deteriorating friendship while admitting her toxic traits that led to their falling out, the best song off SAWAYAMA touches on a theme that I don’t see often in pop music – platonic relationships.

As someone who struggles to maintain contact with my friends for a plethora of reasons (especially in an isolated Covid year), “Bad Friend” strangles me with Rina’s honest admission of the insecurities that makes her a bad friend…and it just breaks my heart.

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9. Fuck The World (Interlude)

Yeah, fuck this world. This song may not be the most comprehensive or in-depth, but the very in-your-face presentation of Earth getting more inhabitable is a refreshing theme to hear in pop music.

It’s another endearing track that also serves as a palette cleanser given its lack of a clear song structure (hence the ‘interlude’ label).

10. Who’s Gonna Save U Now?

In my review, I really didn’t vibe with this track. The live stadium performance mixing of Rina’s vocals didn’t win me over and, to be perfectly honest, they still haven’t.

However, months of sticking with SAWAYAMA has made me appreciate its stylistic detour when listened to with the context of the interlude that came before. Unleashing the angst that had built itself up, the rock inspiration became clear as it served as a perfect vehicle for Rina’s explosive vindication against everyone that used to doubt her.

Would I go out of my way to listen to it? Probably not. But I love its place on the tracklist all the same.

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11. Tokyo Love Hotel

My 2nd favourite song off SAWAYAMA. I’m guilty of the objectification of Japan that she gripes about on the song. Given my love for anime and a lot of Japanese aesthetics in general, I unwittingly placed the country on a pedestal without giving a second thought about the country’s cultures.

As someone of Chinese descent, I’ve also felt a similar protectiveness of my culture when it comes to appropriation; which makes the irony and hypocrisy of my actions that much harder to swallow when I first heard “Tokyo Love Hotel”.

Not too often I come across a song that literally changes my worldview so for that alone, I’m grateful for this song’s existence.

12. Chosen Family

The 4th single off SAWAYAMA, “Chosen Family” is the only ballad on the album and it’s downright gorgeous.

Singing about finding a comforting physical space in the people around them, the song became a place of comfort for myself as well as I isolated alone in a Melbourne apartment for 3 months. It gave me the strength to realise that comfort was just at arm’s length. I just had to reach out and grab it for myself.

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13. Snakeskin

Another track that I wasn’t a huge fan of initially but my experience with hyper-pop grew since and so did my appreciation for “Snakeskin”.

Revisiting the orchestral elements from earlier but wrapping it in a more sinister tone, Rina describes the song as “shed[ding] my trauma and ma[king] art out of it”. The commercialisation of her pain that’s reflected through the raw energy of the production and performance.

Paired with the lack of a coherent song structure, “Snakeskin” is a marvelous note to end the album on and serves as a reminder of how masterful Rina’s artistic vision is when it comes to breaking the 4th wall in the narratives that she weaves throughout of SAWAYAMA‘s sound and style.

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Based in Melbourne and Malaysia. Jensen is a part-time journalist and full-time music fan.

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