by Emma Turney
Nothing says ambition quite like beginning your debut album with an overture. But at 26 years old, Hayley Kiyoko’s debut is long overdue. After starring on Disney Channel (notably as Stella in Lemonade Mouth), Kiyoko has filled a gap in the music industry as one of the only out-and-proud lesbian pop stars. Since the 2015 hit ‘Girls Like Girls,’ Kiyoko has been establishing herself through explicitly queer lyrics and self-directed music videos. Her debut album, Expectations is an impressive collection of pop, allowing her to live up to what fans have come to know her by: The Lesbian Jesus.
Kiyoko’s ability to create a visual experience through sound is one of the most impressive parts of Expectations. The record is a dream-like trance of sunny California meadows – beginning with ‘Expectations (Overture),’ the motif of chirping birds and ocean waves carries throughout almost every track. Most notably on ‘Sleepover,’ Kiyoko sings about falling in love with her straight friend over echoes of her own voice and the soft sound of birds in the background. The most obvious influence from California comes in the catchy ‘Palm Dreams,’ where she sings in ode to the Golden State: “From the hillside / to the valley / watch the sun come up and warm my body.”
The most experimental styles of pop come from the album’s longest tracks ‘Mercy/Gatekeeper’ and ‘Under the Blue/Take Me In.’ Each song is two songs in itself, seamlessly changing beat halfway through. On ‘Mercy/Gatekeeper’ Kiyoko experiments with R&B influences, while on ‘Under the Blue/Take Me In’ she favors electronic sounds. Although each song could be two minutes shorter, these tracks show the uniqueness Kiyoko has to offer the pop music world.
The only collaboration on Expectations comes from fellow queer pop star Kehlani on the confident standout track ‘What I Need,’ which features the pair demanding their respective partners to figure out what they want. What makes the track a huge success is the merging of Kehlani’s sultry vocals with Kiyoko’s powerful vocals, the type of vocals Kiyoko only shows off a couple of other times on this record. But when Kiyoko shows off this confident, almost cocky attitude, she reaches her fullest potential. On ‘Feelings,’ Kiyoko sarcastically apologizes for having too many feelings: “I’m sorry that I care, care / it’s really not that fair, fair.” The heavy bass is joined by quicker, light beats to create the most perfectly executed dance track on the album. In ‘Curious,’ Kiyoko continues the story she started in ‘What I Need,’ cocky attitude in full swing as she nonchalantly confronts the girl she’s seeing about her relationship with a guy. As the lead single off the debut, the best parts of ‘Curious’ come in the detailed, Lorde-like lyrics: “Did you take him to the pier in Santa Monica? / Forget to bring a jacket, wrap up in him cause you wanted to? / I’m just curious, is it serious?” This story of an unfaithful girl is wrapped up in ‘He’ll Never Love You,’ where Kiyoko leaves the past behind, singing, “I know I’m the best you’ve ever had.”
Years in the making, Expectations is an impressive debut from a Disney star turned LGBTQ pop icon. Stylistically, Kiyoko is still trying to find where she lands in the pop genre, but if this album proves anything, it’s that Hayley Kiyoko is the unapologetically lesbian pop star we’ve been waiting for.