When I heard Rina Sawayama purr “Let’s go, Gaga” on her remix of the Chromatica cut “Free Woman,’ I swear I felt every molecule of air leave my lungs. There it was: a moment of pure, unapologetic fan service and an undeniable passing-of-the-torch, one monster to another. Since 2018, comparisons between Sawayama and Gaga have been unavoidable. It’s easy to hear why: both are queer pop stars, both love to shift from dizzying layers of camp to unapologetic sincerity at the drop of a hat. Both artists have the voice to belt and seemingly love to do it. For all the predictions that Rina Sawayama could be “the next Lady Gaga,” the “Let’s go, Gaga” come-on really felt like the stars aligned—a pop prophecy fulfilled.
For all intents and purposes, Sawayama’s Hold the Girl is her stab at something like Born This Way. The similarities are abundant. Both sophomore albums double-down on queerness and queer trauma as a creative framework for pop music. They both announced themselves with singles explicitly intended as LGBTQ anthems—songs that advocate for pride over shame, steamy gay hell over sterile bland heaven (“This Hell,” and “Born this Way”). They’re both very dense, layering four-on-the-floor beats over power ballads and guitar solos straight from a Queen album. But where Born This Way balances its unflinching sincerity with outrageousness, sacrilege and kink, Hold the Girl is oddly monotonous. It lacks the subversion that made Born This Way (the album—and not necessarily the song) so beloved by queers.
Perhaps the most difficult part of Hold the Girl to digest is its sheer genuineness. Across its thirteen tracks, Sawayama exorcises past trauma, rebuilds relationships with loved ones, and reconnects with her inner child. It’s an album about healing from years of injury, an arc that queer people are quite familiar with. But its genuineness doesn’t redeem the songwriting. The lyrics aim to unearth pain but sound more like sloganeering: “Blue skies always there behind the rain,” “I’m looking for signs/For some kind of highway to letting it go,” “I’m not a secret/I’m not a problem.” The hurt is real, but it’s expressed in terms that feel almost corporate. Sawayama’s debut had showed signs of this subtlety-free songwriting, most notably on the sentimental “Chosen Family.” But that album also dealt with similar strains of conflict in more emotive ways. On SAWAYAMA, you felt the homesickness of “Tokyo Love Hotel,” the shame on “Bad Friend,” the fury in “STFU.”
When the writing aligns on Hold the Girl, it does so with aplomb. The title track is a loving dedication to reconciling with lost innocence. It’s both the album’s thesis and the most successful iteration of its thematic through-line. The track collides orchestral balladry with a two-step garage beat, and it’s as thrilling a drop you’ll find on the album.
“Send My Love to John” is a character study of a mother and her estranged son. The perspective shift is a welcome change for an album with such a singular desire to be empowering, personal, and universal all at once. While most of her vocal delivery is full-throttle and arena-ready, Sawayama actually sounds expressive on “John.” “Imagining” is probably the closest the album comes to a SAWAYAMA cut—gleefully clashing industrial, nu-metal, and bubblegum pop. Hold the Girl is an album that prioritizes sounding and feeling genuine. But Rina still sounds pretty damn good glitched up.
And then there’s “This Hell.” It’s the only song that feels off-theme, to a positive effect. Sure, it’s a little on the nose, but it’s the cheekiest and funniest song on an album that drowns under its baggage. The song’s values are simple: look hot, wear designer for the devil, and slay in hell. And Rina means every word.
Sawayama is a devoted revivalist of corny or démodé genres. It worked perfectly on SAWAYAMA—could anyone else have made nu-metal cool and queer but Rina? Much of Hold the Girl draws from a niche of adult contemporary pop, the midpoint between Journey and “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson. But these tracks don’t revive or subvert their reference points. Instead, they remind me why those genres are still so unfashionable. “Catch Me In The Air,” “Forgiveness,” “Hurricane,” and “Phantom” all come and go. None of these songs are particularly bad, but they don’t add anything to the already-stuffed canon of wedding-ready power ballads, nor are they morphed into something identifiably Rina. In fact, she comes across strangely anonymous.
Even the songs with more inventive production—the Euro-raver “Holy (Til You Let Me Go”) or thrasher “Frankenstein”—feel interchangeable with one another. If you swapped the production of “Forgiveness” and “Holy,” the two tracks would still have the same net effect. They’re missing an element of subversion, a wink to the camera that proves Rina is toying with how corny these styles still are. On “XS,” Sawayama sang about materialism like Britney Spears on an anti-capitalist banger. But between the surface-level lyrics and kitschy production, many of the Hold the Girl cuts come across a bit stale.
Realistically, Hold the Girl’s successes and failures will not change anyone’s mind about Rina Sawayama. It’s not going to stop anyone from calling her Slay-wayama, buying tickets to her shows, and comparing her to Mother Monster. The thing is—Rina remains an interesting figure in the current pop landscape: a Japanese-born, UK-raised, queer, left-field pop star committed to treating her albums as high art.
In a way, there’s a certain bravery in Hold the Girl’s unapologetic straightforwardness. It’s full of songs that are, from every angle and perspective, earnest, and a big swing is always at risk of a big miss. It’s not the same type of experimentalism and risk-taking that made SAWAYAMA such a satisfying listen, but it’s a risk nonetheless.
Hold The Girl is out now.