Hold the Girl - Album by Rina Sawayama | Spotify

With the release of her 2020 debut album “SAWAYAMA,” Rina Sawayama established herself as a rising star in the world of pop and as a champion of the rebirth of Y2K-era music. The Japanese-British musician seamlessly combined the pop influences of Lady Gaga, Avril Lavigne and Christina Aguilera with 2000s alternative metal, called nu metal, in a way that plays on Y2K nostalgia. Songs like “XS” and “Tokyo Love Hotel” even displayed deep commentary on capitalist commodification in a way that is only noticeable after a second listen. “SAWAYAMA” was so critically acclaimed that it was even the inspiration for rule changes for both The Brits and The Mercury Prize after it was ineligible for nomination due to Sawayama’s lack of British citizenship, despite living in the country for 26 years. Now, artists who have lived in the U.K. as a resident for at least five years are eligible for awards.

Now, Sawayama is taking the world on a journey into the exploration of her inner child with the release of her second full-length album, “Hold the Girl.” Following her experience to try to heal from an incident in her past, Sawayama told MTV News she did, “an inner child therapy, so you honor the inner child that experienced that thing and once as an adult, you are able to kind of hold them and hug them.” That therapy session ultimately inspired the name of the album and Sawayama delivers a vulnerable and passionate narrative on homophobia, abuse, familial strife and the experience as an immigrant in an ambitious, religiously iconoclastic genre-mashing pop adventure.

The album opens with “Minor Feelings,” a short but impactful build-up to the first act of the record. Sawayama begins the plunge into her emotions here by recognizing the feelings she has regarded as negligible and the pressure that has continually built upon her. Just like how these minor feelings are emotionally weighing Sawayama down, the song similarly gets heavier instrumentally until the epic chorus where Sawayama exclaims, “All my life, I've felt out of place.” The song ends with the bombshell lyrics, “All these minor feelings are majorly getting to me now,” to set up this “Divine Comedy” like journey Sawayama is taking through feelings that can be seen as hellish.

This build-up culminates into the title track of the album “Hold the Girl,” a electro-pop ballad fusion that showcases Sawayama’s vocal range in combination with lyrics that dig into the beginning of the connection between Sawayama and her younger self. “Reach inside and hold you close, I won’t leave you on your own,” repeats throughout the song, which demonstrates Sawayama’s desire to be a guide to her inner child while simultaneously attempting to reconcile and become a fuller person in the present.

Sawayama then dives straight into the inferno with the lead single from the album, “This Hell.” The song can only be described as a club country-pop party that sounds like it came straight off of Lady Gaga’s “Chromatica.” In an interview with Genius, Sawayama said she wanted the song to flip the narrative of religious trauma against LGBTQ+ people in a way that reflects the experience that many in the community have. With lyrics like “God hates us? Alright then. Buckle up at dawn, we’re riding,” Sawayama celebrates the fact that she is proud of herself and her LGBTQ+ identity, and in the process, she’s is creating a queer club anthem out of the hate.

Church bells open the album's second act of “Hold the Girl” in the electronic “Holy (Til You Let Me Go),” which describes Sawayama’s trauma at a religious school where she details trying to pray her pain away. The church bell motif returns at the end of the song as a distorted outro plays detailing the lack of people looking out for Sawayama in her life. The preceding tracks, “Your Age,” “Imagining” and “Frankenstein” explore Sawayama’s anger and cries for help by combining the pop influences of the first act of the album with hard rock reminiscent of Evanescence. This second act shows the intense emotional work Sawayama had to do in a relatable heart-wrenching sequence that connects the listener to the darkness she experiences.

In the third and final act of “Hold the Girl,” Sawayama finally starts to see some light at the end of the tunnel. In “Send My Love to John,” the record switches to an acoustic instrumental that details the true story of a mother finally reconciling with her queer son in spite of her traditionalistic beliefs by finally sending her best wishes to his partner. This song is an absolutely heartbreaking yet hopeful intermission from the darkness of the rest of the album. Sawayama’s angelic voice narrates this track and sets a warmer tone for the end of her journey.

The grand finale of the album is a dynamic duo of tracks that are some of the most beautiful pieces on the album. In “Phantom,” Sawayama finally reconciles with her inner child in the form of an 80s-90s rock ballad overlaid with epic guitar riffs that are reminiscent of “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey. From there, the album concludes with “To Be Alive,” a song that closes Sawayama’s adventure by expressing the moment she truly felt joy again. Sawayama’s voice returns to being light and airy and the feeling the song gives can only be described as reaching the top of a mountain to a beautiful view after struggling the entire way up. 

“Hold the Girl” is an immersive and deeply powerful work of art that tells a beautiful story. Every word and melody has purpose within the album, and when put together, Sawayama guides the listener through the trials and tribulations faced during this rough part of her life. Sawayama not only demonstrates her superstardom on “Hold the Girl,” but also puts on a masterclass on the art of storytelling. 

I give “Hold the Girl” a 10/10.

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