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Five on it: Hold the Girl sees Rina Sawayama find peace with her past – and herself

Rina Sawayama shows how meaningful big pop can be - plus new tracks from Sampa the Great, Kelela, Sudan Archives and Ari Lennox.

22 Sep 2022

Thurstan Redding

Much has been made of Rina Sawayama’s penchant for cherry-picking genres and weaving an intricate post-modern tapestry from the threads. Debut album SAWAYAMA was an inspired splicing of turn-of-the-millennium pop, club bops, and nu metal that dropped in the middle of a pandemic lockdown that was similarly ‘unprecedented’. Lively in a time where there was, essentially, nothing to look forward to, its leaning into yesteryear allowed fans to grow wistful for nostalgia whilst dreaming in hope for the future. 

The past has always worked its way into Rina’s music; the core of SAWAYAMA explored themes of family and identity, with Rina telling Pitchfork that “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.” And whilst she found some closure on the more overarching themes of race and national heritage, there was still much more to unpack when it came to topics more personal.

Second album Hold the Girl continues this exploration of self, the writing of its contents acting as a form of therapy to unravel and process familial trauma in order to move onwards. The album’s title itself details the advice given from her therapist in order to reparent herself in adulthood, make peace with the tumult of her past, and give herself the validation that was absent in her childhood. Rina even shared a bedroom with her mother – who raised her as a single parent – until the age of 15, yet the journey in their relationship is detailed with more warmth on the single ‘Catch Me in the Air’, a celebration of how far they have come. Elsewhere, and ‘Send My Love to John’ twins ‘Chosen Family’ by capturing the uncertainty of queer children finding acceptance from their parents, while ‘This Hell’ puts a playful spin on walking proud in the face of homophobia. 

Taking influence from the country-pop rock sound of Shania Twain, The Corrs and everyone in between, these oft-forgotten gems of the 90s add a buoyant play for the mainstream in a way not found on her debut. It’s by no means a bad thing, but a sound that’s just different – for Rina’s different. A chunk of her angst has been set aside; instead, she’s embraced peace. 

Rina Sawayama – ‘Hurricanes’

Over the course of the past four years, Rina Sawayama has perfected the knack of crafting a big pop chorus, and ‘Hurricanes’ – the final preview of her new album Hold the Girl, which dropped last week – is particularly jubilant. A powerhouse pop-rock anthem with driving force, ‘Hurricanes’ is propelled by pummelling drums and triumphant guitar work that energise its grand chorus. Tapping into 90s nostalgia, as she is so often wont to do, the track’s overblown urgency captures Rina’s pop ambitions outside of the pixelated sphere of the internet, as she partakes in the seemingly impossible task of grounding herself whilst pursuing evasive and lofty dreams.  

Sampa the Great – ‘Let Me Be Great’ feat. Angélique Kidjo

Taken from her anticipated new album, As Above, So Below, ‘Let Me Be Great’ sees Sampa the Great declare her pride for her heritage whilst demanding the respect she deserves. Relocating back to her childhood home of Zambia during the pandemic had a profound effect on the artist, reconnecting her to her roots and stoking an exploration of the country’s music. “As uncertain and scary as it was, I got to work with artists I saw growing up,” Sampa said. “Then, I got to journey back to the young Sampa, who dreamed of being an artist, and revert to the reasons why I wanted to be an artist in the first place.” This newfound confidence resulted in this euphoric collaboration with Angélique Kidjo, complete with playful, wriggling rhythms and brass interjections and gleeful vocals. 

Kelela – ‘Washed Away’

For a long time now, the internet has been asking “where in the world is Kelela?” It has been more than a hot minute (half a decade, to be precise) since the release of her lauded debut album Take Me Apart, and the wait for its follow-up has been unprecedented, without even a single to placate fans in the interim. Understandably, the release of comeback single ‘Washed Away’ was met with bated breath, yet with  it was not the bop many anticipated – something Kelela herself recognised. “I love a banger, but for the first point of contact out of my hiatus, it felt more honest to lead with an ambient heart-check,” she shared in the single’s press release, adding “I specifically want to speak to marginalised Black folk and highlight the work we do to find renewal in a world that’s built to make us feel inadequate. This song is the soundtrack to the relief we find after going inward.”

Sudan Archives – ‘OMG BRITT’

Through the singles for second album Natural Brown Prom Queen, Sudan Archives has explored archetypes synonymous with supposed femininity; comeback single ‘Home Maker’ saw her embody the comfort of domesticity, while ‘Selfish Soul’ conflated the complex relationship of Black hair with supposed surface-level vanity. Her mantra of “I’m not average” on title-track ‘NBPQ’ is intensified to stratospheric effect on ‘OMG BRITT’, channelling her biggest baddie energy to demand spectators to witness the full eclecticism of her art. Setting aside the intricacies of aforementioned singles for chunky bass and doomy production, ‘OMG BRITT’ doesn’t noisily clamour for attention, but instead commands it with quiet precision. 

Ari Lennox – ‘Queen Space’ feat. Summer Walker

Ari Lennox and Summer Walker have teamed up before, on Summer’s 2021 outing ‘Unloyal’, and now it is time for the favour to be returned. Landing with Ari’s surprise drop of second album age/sex/location, ‘Queen Space’ is a sultry cut of neo-soul with an R&B twist that loosely winds with its coercive bass. Topped with glacial keys and interjections of wriggling guitar, the track succinctly closes the album by reinforcing age/sex/location’s key instruction of diverting your energy away from would-be significant others playing with your time and gifting it back to yourself. Quipping the new collection as “the transitional space before my current eat, pray, love journey”, Ari Lennox is on a mission of loving herself first and foremost. 

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