Hayley Kiyoko (almost) lives up to ‘Expectations’ with debut album

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Two messiahs returned this Easter weekend.

Hayley Kiyoko, often referred to as “Lesbian Jesus,” loudly broke onto the scene with her debut album Expectations on Good Friday. Known for her catchy 2015 single “Girls Like Girls” — or, if you’re straight, her role in Disney’s “Lemonade Mouth” —  Kiyoko proves herself worthy of the title with each subsequent release.

Her six music videos released since “Girls Like Girls”  — all of which earned her directing credits — each play as a standalone queer short film. In visual quality and heart, all surpass the entirety of Netflix’s LGBTQ Movies section, telling explicitly LGBTQ+ stories through stunning aesthetic choices and, for select tracks, Kiyoko’s own dancing.  

Her music video for “Sleepover” — a track on Expectations, though it was released over a year ago — is awash in pastel pink visuals, bringing to life the utter longing expressed by its lyrics. It’s sweet, it’s sad, it’s real. Depicting the near-universal queer girl experience of falling in love with a straight best friend, the track denoted a move towards greater emotional depth in Kiyoko’s undeniably pop, undeniably queer music.

This depth is furthered in Expectations, with tracks such as “Let It Be” conveying a sense of loss, of acceptance and moving on. Its simple beat and soft vocals convey a post-breakup sense of mourning, but they never wallow in self-pity. Her singing is gentle, and her moments of silence are complemented by a genius, quick drum beat as gorgeous, choir-like harmonies swell in the post-chorus.

Yet there’s this fear among a faction of Kiyoko’s listeners — is this music good, or are we just gay? Does Kiyoko herself fear that her music is only celebrated within the context of LGBTQ+ music videos — that her base’s emphasis is upon watching two girls make out more so than her original compositions?

If she did, that would be out of character. Kiyoko’s pop style is best characterized by her irreverent cockiness, her endearing confidence. She knows this — there’s a reason her album cover features a woman in the nude.

The girl who sang “Imma take your girl out” in 2015 is still there — her music is just stronger, her backing music sexier, her vocals even more audacious. While the most blatantly titled track “He’ll Never Love You (HNLY)” is far from the album’s best, as its opening notes confusingly include a reggae beat, it still oozes the pop princess’ effervescent charm.

Of the album’s previously unreleased tracks, “Wanna Be Missed” best showboats this charisma. Once the song warms up, its chorus operates at full throttle, its pacing deliciously spaced so that each lyric is rightfully emphasized. “Say you can’t eat / can’t sleep / can’t breathe without me,” she croons atop a multilayered electric beat reminiscent of the Weeknd’s Beauty Behind The Madness. It’s one remix away from being a dance track, but timed as it is, the backing instrumentals heighten her lyrical impact in a haunting pairing.

And yet, the album’s sole feature and most highly anticipated track, “What I Need (feat. Kehlani),” fails to live up to, well, expectations. While undeniably catchy, it’s ultimately an overproduced track — one with little in its sights beyond radio playability.

To misuse the Grammy-nominated and openly queer Kehlani, who demonstrates such raw same-gender love on her own single “Honey,” is not only a let-down, it’s shocking — Kehlani just saved KYLE’s bland “Playinwitme” with her endearing verse directed at a female crush.

“What I Need” is not a bad track by any means, ranking within the better half of the album. The song effuses missed potential, a sense that permeates the less memorable tracks of Expectations — they’re good, but they could be better. But this sense isn’t disparaging, as the album demonstrates undeniable growth from Kiyoko’s earlier EPs, with each new release being better than the last.

Kiyoko’s burgeoning artistry blooms one explicitly queer track at a time, and we’re lucky to be along for the ride.

Caroline Smith is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].