While not as musically ambitious as previous efforts, Rina Sawayama regardless succeeds in demonstrating us a smart, honest, and empathetic view of trauma confrontation channelled through her trademark genre-bending brand of pop on sophomore record Hold the Girl.

Release date: September 16, 2022 | Dirty Hit Records | Official Website | Bandcamp | Instagram | Facebook

There is a sense of practicality to Rina Sawayama‘s artistry that I think goes unnoticed on discussion circles surrounding her releases. Shining light on social issues through nostalgia-induced music is a simple approach yet so effective on the grander scheme of things. Whether it is the displaying of our relationship with internet culture in the form of y2k dance pop on 2017 EP Rina, or how debut full length SAWAYAMA sees her forming earnest critiques on topics such as intergenerational pressure, capitalism, and Asian fetishization – all amidst an ambitious mesh of stadium rock, EDM pop and nu metal – Rina accomplishes in instilling social consciousness through the familiar in such a smooth fashion. Hold the Girl follows this very path, or rather, takes a few steps back in order to properly move forward, by looking inwards.

In an attempt to ‘infiltrate therapy into pop music‘, Rina took the task of going through therapy herself in order to explore – and resolve – unattended traumas nascent from her adolescence. The first track “Minor Feelings” introduces the overall concept of the record effectively, much like what “Dynasty” did on SAWAYAMA. The welling orchestration of acoustic guitars and wind instrumentation tenderly offers Rina the space to talk about how these traumatic events go by unnoticed throughout her life, only for them to group together and cause much harm in adulthood – particularly depicted on these lines taken from the chorus:  ‘All these minor feelings are majorly breaking me down‘. It’s a powerful opener that sets the precedent for the emotional heft found on the lyrics throughout the album.

If “Minor Feelings” lays out the mood and purpose of Hold the Girl, then the self-titled track presents its main characters. Yes, main characters: A focal point of the album revolves around Rina facing with a personified version of her younger self, akin to a mother figure reaching out and making amends, offering protection, and encouraging acceptance. Backed by a vibrant production boasting confident strings and a flawless vocal performance – along with a climactic key change that’s not in the least goosebumps-inducing – this country-tinged dance pop single carries itself as an empowering thesis of self-reconnection and self-forgiveness, an exercise that allows her to confront the traumas presented on later tracks.

Throughout this personal journey that Rina has embarked on, she realizes that much of the trauma stems from constantly meeting expectations enforced by others. Expanding upon this on an interview:

I think when you spend your whole life trying to make other people happy, whether it’s your parents or school or this societal notion of what’s good […] you genuinely forget what you want to do. What makes you happy? What are your values? I think this record overall is about finding out what those boundaries are.’

This is exemplified on a track like “Holy (Til You Let Me Go)”, where Rina touches upon the harm that religious institutions inflict on the process of forming your own identity. The ominous edge that the keys bring out to this otherwise exhilarating electro-pop track – drenched in throbbing bass and engrossing reverb – fully captures this disappointing, before-and-after realization of having developed a set of interests and aspirations, only to be judged and punished for having them, all for what they perceive to be a mission for her to become good.

I was innocent when you said I was evil
I took your stones and I built a cathedral
Found my peace when I lost my religion
All these years I wished I was different
But, oh, now I know
I’m holy ’til you let me go.

The fact that adolescence is precisely known to be a phase where identity-forming is paramount gives much more weight to the guilt and frustration felt on Hold the Girl. This is especially true for marginalized identities: Rina Sawayama is part of and has championed the LGBTQ+ community throughout her musical career – the hardships and consequent efforts to reclaim their space in this world being one the themes found on this record.

Picking up where “Holy (Til You Let Me Go)” left off, the coming-of-age pop rager “Your Age” sports out a pounding beat, switching from the previous song’s moodier atmosphere to a more triumphant albeit sour feel to its EDM-styled melodies, as Rina finds herself at an age where she’s able to learn about the real motives behind peoples and institutions that have constantly barraged at her for being who she is, eventually concluding that she never had a problem to begin with. Lead single “This Hell” further expands upon that realization, with a commanding arena rock riff leading way to an energetic country pop track that spitefully celebrates the communal experience of incessantly being sent to hell, and also stands as an embrace to those who have felt othered from such a senseless act of cruelty.

Hold the Girl also does a great job guiding us through the psychological toll caused by these traumatic events. “Imagining” electrifies the tracklist with a recounting of depersonalization through passages that do not shy away from the hyperpop sound, whilst “Frankenstein” follows the energy with a driving bassline, sporadic drumming, and an overall charming yet tense alt rock-meets-post punk demeanor that details the burden of these emotional scars left by trauma and the eventual desperation of not seeing any sign of progress.

Now, a characteristic that I think has defined Rina Sawayama throughout her blooming career – and that which is once more demonstrated on Hold the Girl – is the tact and empathy that she manages to employ on all of her songs. It’s clear by now that Rina is not afraid to express justified anger, call bullshit on continued displays of inequity, and open up to her fans about the overwhelmingness of going through it all. Yet, it all comes from a place of understanding, and that is something that certainly makes her stand out from other musically-similar peers. Whether it is the euphoric pop single “Catch Me In The Air” illustrating a touching expression of gratitude towards her mother for the sacrifices both have made to maintain a strong bond between each other, or the acoustic ballad “Send My Love To John” which tells the story of an immigrant mother who has struggled with her son’s identity as queer until one day, during a phone call with his son, ends the conversation by sending well wishes to his boyfriend (hence the title of the track).

Claiming back the pieces of me that I’ve lost‘ sings Rina on the pre-chorus off the cathartic rock slow-burner “Phantom”, and that’s exactly what Rina Sawayama set out to do on Hold the Girl – for herself and for those who cross paths with this record. To be completely honest with you, I was left a bit underwhelmed with my initial listen due to the lack of ambition introduced on SAWAYAMA. After giving it a couple of more spins, however… I don’t think it’s necessary. It’s really not necessary when the intent behind the record presents itself with equal or even greater power than merely opting for more sonic experimentation. Yes, this is what you might call her definite pop album. And yet, in the thick of every glistening melody, contagious hook, and resplendent vocal line, is an opportunity to reflect, heal, and prosper in the most comforting manner. Indeed, Rina has done it again.

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