Rina Sawayama is a highly rated singer-songwriter who has been making waves in the pop world over the last few years. After signing to the popular indie label Dirty Hit, she released her debut album ‘SAWAYAMA‘ in 2020. This wowed critics with its versatile sound that mixed everything from Pop to Nu-Metal.
Now, she returns with her sophomore release ‘Hold The Girl‘ which takes Rina to the next stage of her career artistically. While her self-titled debut was a solid album with catchy tunes, this new LP takes things in a much more personal direction. Due to collaborations with the likes of Elton John and Charli XCX, the star power of this artist has only increased. As a result, this a highly anticipated record.
‘Hold The Girl‘ improves on a lot of the faults of the last release, while keeping what made that LP good. The versatile instrumentals remain, yet feel more coherent. Also, Rina’s discussion of childhood struggles and her mental health is the depth I desired from the first record. She is at her best here vocally, and works with talented artists like Clarence Clarity, Paul Epworth, and rising songwriter Lauren Aquilina.
Starting with the mellow and soulful ‘Minor Feelings,’ we then get hit with the fantastic singles. The title track focuses on needing someone during her formative years, as Rina Sawayama shows off her angelic higher register. The quite chilled instrumental gets hits of energy throughout whether that be the harp and guitar near the start or the garage-esque drums towards the end.
‘This Hell‘ was a phenomenal single due to its roaring guitars and the performance of Rina throughout. This tale of embracing your sexuality despite being seen as a sinner is a powerful message. The catchy and humourous lyricism is top stuff, including lines like “but might as well get down and dirty, that Satan’s looking thirsty.” It’s an absolute anthem that shouts out gay icons like ABBA with its interpolation of ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!,’ while criticising the treatment of icons like Princess Diana and Britney Spears.
The next track moves towards a more whimsical and soulful sound on ‘Catch Me In The Air.’ The focus moves back onto the mother-daughter relationship and how both how been there for one another during hard times. It’s quite emotional stuff, particularly when Sawayama hits the high notes on the chorus.
We then reach the next stage of the album, where the self-doubt of her childhood begins to creep in. ‘Forgiveness‘ feels like a scene from a late-night lounge club, as Rina brings a more raspy delivery to this tale of learning to forgive past mistakes. The more dancier sound of ‘Holy (Till You Let Me Go)‘ feels like a track off CamelPhat’s last album. It criticises the use of religion to hurt Rina during her college years. It’s a very cinematic track that brings back the themes of religion being used in a negative light due to someone’s race or sexuality.
Rina Sawayama turns her criticism towards adults on ‘Your Age‘ as she reflects on being made a social outcast. This brings a very punk and Nu-Metal energy that reminds me of the material off the debut LP. The vocal delivery shows the anger and pain these times caused our protagonist. That emotional distress is also present on ‘Imagining‘ with gaslighting causing her to feel unstable about herself. Starting with a melancholic sound it becomes more upbeat and the vocals less distorted at the end. Maybe, a sign that these insecurities are becoming more obvious to her and therefore there’s hope they can be fixed.
The next two tracks were quite the opposite, with ‘Frankenstein‘ an album highlight and ‘Hurricanes‘ a low point. The former brings a very Sleaford Mods-inspired punky energy, with addictive vocals and a boppy beat. Some of the best lines on the album are here, such as “I’m trying to be normal, but trauma is immortal.” Representing the desire for your partner to fix you, but knowing that’s not their responsibility, it’s appropriately placed on the tracklist. ‘Hurricanes‘ meanwhile has some nice metaphors of trying to escape problems but causing more. It’s, unfortunately. let down by a very vanilla sound and covers themes we’ve already seen done better.
Giving a slight change from Rina’s inner turmoil, ‘Send My Love To John‘ was a cute acoustic-country cut. It was inspired by a friend’s boyfriend’s relationship with their mother. The track focuses on an immigrant mother initially struggling to come to terms with her child’s queerness due to religious beliefs. This is before finally finding acceptance in who her son is as a person. Showing off her higher register and country twang, backed by a choir on the back-end of the song, it’s a highlight. Moreover, it brings the album’s themes together nicely.
The album draws to a close with ‘Phantom.’ We see her look back on her childhood self and coming to terms with it to improve present-day Rina. The roaring guitars are perfect for the emotion expressed in this song, as she realises how to feel whole. And that wholeness is reached on ‘To Be Alive‘ as she finally finds fulfillment in life and herself. The wailing synths and piano mixed with drum’n’bass and choir elements on the chorus make for a great dance-pop closer. You feel like you’ve gone on a journey with Rina on this album. It leaves you feeling a sense of relief that she’s found the happiness she’s been craving.
Throughout this LP, you see and understand the life and feelings of Rina Sawayama. Her struggles with acceptance, the bigotry of society, and self-doubt had caused her so much pain. Thankfully, she now seems at peace. Despite her struggles with personal relationships (mother or partners), she has learned to help these people and herself.
The collaborators on this album have helped Rina to improve vocally and conceptually, allowing a story to be crafted cohesively. An emotional experience that keeps you invested, ‘Hold The Girl‘ is one of this year’s best Pop releases.