Album Review: On “Expectations”, Hayley Kiyoko Offers An Ambitious, Sparkly, Debut Album

By Phoebe Little ’20

Hayley Kiyoko is a new artist with a small but devoted cult following. She’s on the cusp of hitting big time, but she has big ambitions. In short, there’s a lot riding on Kiyoko’s debut album, “Expectations.”

Kiyoko is currently in the early stages of her pop music career, working to be taken seriously in the music industry after a career on Disney Channel as a teen starlet. She is also one of pop music’s only openly queer female artists, meaning that she is tasked with representing an entire community of marginalized people with her work. Kiyoko hit the nail on the head naming her album; there’s a lot of people with expectations about her debut album “Expectations.”

The ambitious album opens with an overture. Beyond the overture, Kiyoko weaves an attempt at a concept album complete with an interlude named “xx”, with occasional ambient bird, wind and ocean sounds on the edge of her songs and with several double track suites. It’s an electronic pop riff on earlier decades of concept albums and, perhaps most notably, Lorde’s 2017 “Melodrama.”

In Kiyoko’s hands the concept album effect is not entirely successful. Unlike other concept albums, Kiyoko is not using the structure to create a coherent narrative, or at least that is not what comes across. Instead it seems like the album’s overall style is an unsuccessful attempt to elevate “Expectations” from pop music to art. This is a pity because Kiyoko’s strength is sexy, fun, catchy pop singles.

As a debut album, “Expectations” shows that  Kiyoko is still finding her voice. Beyond the weak concept album attempt, the weakest parts of the album are where the track relies too heavily on Kiyoko’s serviceable but unremarkable vocals like in “Wanna Be Missed” or when her lyrics fail to express anything new as in Kiyoko’s tepid ode to L.A., “Palm Trees”.

Having said that, there’s so much to enjoy in “Expectations”. A lot of tracks feature tight pop songwriting with fun lyrics and killer hooks. There’s the slow building “Feelings” that overlays a pop vocal with a irresistable bouncy synth and drum machine beat. The dreamy track “Sleepover” features a deep bass line under lyrics that have Kiyoko longing for romantic attention from her platonic female friend. “How many days, how many nights / 'Til you realize, he'll never love you like me?” on the very catchy reggae feeling “He’ll Never Love You (HNLY)”.

Then there’s the break up anthem, “Curious”, about a girlfriend leaving Kiyoko for a man. “Did you take him to the pier in Santa Monica forget to bring your jacket/ Wrap him in it cause you wanted to.” She spits at rapid speed to a catchy synth beat. “I’m just curious” she sings, pausing before delivering a zinger of a kiss off, “Is it serious?”.

It’s undeniable that songs like these, that make open references to Kiyoko’s own experience as a queer woman are a part of her appeal as an artist. Fans watched the accompanying music videos to Kiyoko’s “Expectations” singles millions of times. This phenomenon speaks to the marginalized community of queer women’s desire for representation of queer women’s storylines in pop culture.

Kiyoko is not a queer artist who creates content that leans away from queerness for the sake of being palatable to the masses. She is not a queer artist who only caters to a queer audience either. Instead Kiyoko writes catchy songs about relationships with women and the result is a lot of fun pop bops about queer women and queer love. Kiyoko’s range as an artist shows up in the way many types of people connect to her music.

Kiyoko is not the first to sing about women loving women — she follows in the footsteps of artists like Tegan and Sara and Mary Lambert. However, she is the first mainstream artist to discuss queer women so consistently and visibly in her lyrics and videos. The way Kiyoko sings about relationships and flirtations with women just as confidently as any heterosexual male artist is a powerful normalization of queer women and their relationships in music and media.