Like almost every artist who released a record last year, Rina Sawayama has been waiting to bring her debut album, 2020’s genre hopping Sawayama, to life. When she arrived on stage for the first show of her long-delayed UK tour, all it built was worth it.
Since releasing her first EP in 2017, Sawayama’s pop ambitions have been so enormous, her artistic vision so confident that they are reminiscent of an early Lady Gaga.
She also had the material to back it up: Based on pop, R&B and now metal from the early 2000s, her songs dealt with meaty topics such as racism, family trauma, millennial ennui and queerness, earning her a Brit Award nomination for 2021s Rising Star.
If anything, the 31-year-old’s potential as a pop star was suffocated by the size of the venues she had previously played.
Not anymore. At Manchester’s Albert Hall show, Sawayama’s pop skills were fully realized. When she appeared on her two-layer stage dressed in a black cropped corset and leggings that looked like assless girls, she launched the theatrical hair metal from “Dynasty,” where her robust vocals went up against a shredded guitar solo.
Sawayama treated the show as if she were starring in an arena, leaving the stage four times for costume changes and interludes, one of which included a monologue by Labor MP Zarah Sultana, which focused on climate change and racism.
The set list of 17 tracks also felt carefully plotted: The strutting “Comme Des Garçons” was followed by the almost demonic “Akasaka Sad”, which ended with a dance break as the stage was bathed in red light.
Later, after withdrawing only to return dressed in what can only be described as Tomb Raider cosplay, she paired the calm and meditative “Bad Friend”, performed alone, with “F *** This World”, a song about climate change that saw her being pulled and distorted by her dancers.
There was even a undressed moment where she only with a drum machine and an acoustic guitar sang queer ballad “Chosen Family” while sitting down on some steps. Clearly, Sawayama has studied the art of structuring a pop play.
However, things never felt excessive. For her euphoric extras, Sawayama delivered a tightly choreographed performance of the metallic “XS” before ending the show with a double-tap of the EDM banger “Lucid” and her remix of Lady Gaga’s “Free Woman”.
This closer, in a way, was appropriate: not since Gaga has an artist shown such respect, reverence, and command over pop. In a former Wesleyan chapel in the center of Manchester, it felt as if a superstar was being born.
Rina Sawayama’s debut album is out now