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Pay Attention to Rina Sawayama, by Morgan Schneider

If you want to know what the future of pop music sounds like, listen to Rina Sawayama. The British Japanese pop singer just released her second album, Hold The Girl, through Dirty Hit Records. She’s been signed to them since 2020, when she released her debut album SAWAYAMA, named one of the best of the year by Billboard, The Guardian, NME, USA Today and New York Times.

Sawayama draws inspiration from Hikaru Utada and *NSYNC as much as Limp Bizkit and Evanescence. She’s collaborated with Charli XCX, Bree Runway, Lady Gaga and Elton John. She’s a multi-hyphenate who worked as a model before singing and just finished shooting John Wick: Chapter 4, in which she has a supporting role.

There were few albums I’ve been more excited for this year than Hold The Girl, which was announced on May 16 with the hashtag #rinaisgoingtohell. Exactly four months later, Sawayama’s brought us all along for the ride — a rollicking reckoning with her upbringing that sounds reminiscent of pop’s past and future.

While Hold The Girl isn’t quite as mind-blowing as her debut, it boasts strong lyrics, clever genre-blending and enough levity to have a good time. The album invites us all to party ‘til the sun comes up and leave our demons where they belong.

Like SAWAYAMA, the first three singles released are tracks two through four. This Hell opens with Shania Twain’s call to arms (“Let’s go, girls!”) and is a country-pop song in which Sawayama sings about going to hell with her friends. Between the upbeat tempo and tongue-in-cheek lyrics (“Get in line, pass the wine, bitch!”), it’s a certified bop. I’m begging Brick to play it at Country Night soon.

Catch Me In The Air came next, and showcases Sawayama’s ability to perfectly pay homage to the early 2000s pop she grew up on. The lyrics are a letter to her mom, thanking her for her sacrifices in raising a daughter (“and they will never know the fear of making a mistake / the risk you take, the pain you create”), and the instrumentals sound just like the outro for a ’90s/’00s coming-of-age flick. But despite the sentiment and style, it’s one of the weaker songs on the album, forgettable and cliché compared to similar tracks Forgiveness and Phantom.

Hold The Girl, the title track, puts Sawayama’s voice front and center as she climbs her range like a ladder. According to an interview with Australian magazine Frooty, the phrase comes from a type of therapy she followed in lockdown.

“It was about inner child work, when you've gone through something traumatic when you're a child or a teenager, and you are actually able to heal yourself as an adult through honoring the feelings of the person that you were,” Sawayama said.

The song sees Sawayama forgive and embrace, going from “sometimes, I get down with guilt / for the promises I’ve broken to my younger self” to a triumphant “reach inside and hold you close / I won’t leave you on your own.”

The rest of the album matches these three singles in tone and sound. Lyrics talk about everything from an age-inappropriate relationship in Your Age and working through her worst traumas with the track Frankenstein to seeing the world as a place of hope in To Be Alive. Instrumentals range from the 2000s-like (“Phantom”), to a quiet, twangy country ballad (Send My Love To John). Here, Hold The Girl gets more intimate than SAWAYAMA, which talked about things such as suicide, depression, and selling her pain to the capitalist pop machine, but it wasn’t as cathartic or triumphant, in the end, as HTG.

Still, SAWAYAMA is still more innovative; it brought a left-of-center sound that established the singer as a versatile, clever artist who can wear genres like they’re costumes. Nothing sounds as incredible as STFU!, the first single from SAWAYAMA, a straight-up heavy metal track where she snarls the verses before sweetly delivering the chorus. The closest Hold The Girl gets is the trio Imagining, “Frankenstein” and Hurricanes, which transport the listener to a sweaty rock dance party in somebody’s basement.

Hold The Girl taps into more mainstream appeal, keeping its sonic swerves closer to the center. It’s a loss in that sense, certainly, but some listeners might appreciate a more cohesive sound overall.

In the end, Sawayama has taken the dynamism of her debut and constrained it, slimmed it down a little to try and increase her audience. Hopefully it works. Still, I encourage Hold The Girl on repeat, and give your ears what they deserve.

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