Rina Sawayama is ambitious. She’s a Cambridge graduate. She’s a musician. She wants to raise awareness about the struggles of being Asian American and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, all while embracing her inner child. She’s trying to out-do her critically-acclaimed debut album with her newest release “Hold the Girl.”
Following up “SAWAYAMA” would be a daunting task for any artist. Sawayama’s hit single off the album, “XS” is a musical masterpiece. The song satirizes excessive modern-day consumerism at the expense of the climate, all while accomplishing one of the most interesting feats of production I’ve come across in the past couple of years. She marries modern day pop with trap beats and heavy metal riffs, completely blowing away listeners within the first 20 seconds. (Trust me, just listen to it.) Other fan favorites like “STFU!” and “Comme Des Garcons (Like the Boys)” have a similarly stunning production quality. Sawayama simultaneously carved out a niche for herself musically and garnered a loyal fanbase. Basically, she was a huge success.
Her new release, “Hold the Girl,” does a lot of things well, but it doesn’t meet the bar Sawayama set with “SAWAYAMA.” Generally, it’s been pretty successful with singles “This Hell” and “Hold the Girl” generating nearly 16 million streams on Spotify. The album’s songs address everything from anti-Asian hate, Sawayama’s complicated relationship with her mother, perfectionism, healing her inner child and accepting herself. In short, this album is all over the place. It lacks a lot of the cohesion and creativity that made “SAWAYAMA” stand out in 2020.
The most popular song of the album, “This Hell,” is a queer anthem that released just in time for Pride Month. It’s the song off “Hold the Girl” that sounds most like “SAWAYAMA.” With gnarly guitar riffs galore and Sawayama’s rockin’ vocals, she grapples with feeling unaccepted by the Church as a LGBTQ+ person. She sings a lot about this religious tension throughout the album, but it ultimately feels like a passing thought in the chaotic blur of themes Sawayama addresses. “This Hell” feels like it’s pandering to Sawayama’s loyal LGBTQ+ audience.
On the other hand, you have “Send My Love To John,” a heartfelt stripped-back guitar ballad that tells the story of an immigrant mother apologizing to her queer son for not accepting him. It’s not like “SAWAYAMA” at all. It isn’t angry and there’s no killer heavy metal riffs, but it’s sincere. It’s the only song on the album that made me feel anything.
“This Hell” rightfully spits in the face of bigots, but “Send My Love To John” also shows that hateful people have the capacity to change. Sawayama’s introspectiveness isn’t apparent in her pop ballads, but her personal growth shines more when she isn’t focused on creating stadium anthems. She sings in “Phantom” about her tendency to people-please, crooning “Once upon a time / There was a girl pleasing the world / Dying to be liked.” Clearly, this problem still exists.
“Hold the Girl” reaches for inspiration in places other than Sawayama’s journal, though. “Minor Feelings” is named after a book by Korean-American poet Cathy Park Hong. “This Hell” tips its five-gallon hat with a classic Shania Twain “Let’s go girls!” ad-lib. She pays homage to the pop-punk ballads of Avril Lavinge in “Hurricane.”
Sawayama spends so much time trying to please her audience and emulate other artists, she ultimately loses what makes her music so special — herself. As a queer, intelligent, Asian-American woman, Sawayama has a lot of valuable things to bring to the table. I was blown away by the creative production on “SAWAYAMA,” but that doesn’t mean that she needs to rely on gimmicks to be successful. I just want Rina Sawayama to “Gimme just a little bit (more!).”
Album: “Hold the Girl”
Artist: Rina Sawayama
Label: Dirty Hit
Favorite track: “Send My Love To John”
If you like: Charli XCX, Grimes, M.I.A.
Shamrocks: 3 out of 5
Contact Claire at firstname.lastname@example.org.