Hayley Kiyoko is referred to as Lesbian Jesus by her fans and the nature of her sexual orientation and her subsequent outness is dominating every current conversation had about the one-time child actress. This is understandable but depressing too, that in 2018 a hopeful mainstream female singer is being championed because she is openly gay is not what many would have hoped for 20 years or so back.
The album cover for Kiyoko’s debut release, Expectations, feels cynical and is an image very much in the realm of male fantasy, but is welcomed if it helps young women identify a positive role model to help them embrace who they are.
Kiyoko has already said that by the time she releases her next album she hopes that this issue will not be the focus and there is a sense that she wants to get this out of the way with now, so that she can move on to what’s really important for many – the music.
Kiyoko’s closest musical companion is probably Tove Lo, thematically Lo is by far the more explicit sexually but they both share a similar, modern electronic-pop template that can incorporate radio-friendly tropical house as well as pushing a mood to other far more challenging and interesting areas. Tracks already released from the album have fallen very much into the former category.
From the earnest, string-backed slow RnB of ‘Sleepover’ to the masterful use of repetition in the thumping ‘Curious’, they all prove Kiyoko knows how to make solid, commercial pop music. Lyrically, Kiyoko seems to be the kind of gay gal who often gets her sights set on someone who has a boyfriend, the sort of usually unavailable girl that Tegan and Sara sang about in 2016’s ‘Boyfriend’.
Pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’ feature far more than you might expect when listening to songs of lust and love by a gay women (see again in ‘He’ll Never Love You’), but this is part of Kiyoko’s schtick and the competitive aspect of this seems to form part of her appeal.
A duet with bi-sexual RnB singer Kelani on ‘What I Need’ is fine but is more of a successful marketing achievement than a musical one and ultimately feels like a wasted opportunity for the pair to create something more compelling, even shocking.
It’s after all of these tracks, which form the first third of Expectations, that things start to evolve. ‘Mercy/Gatekeeper’ is a throbbing, nocturnal and blurry synth-pop odyssey that is evocative of The Weeknd at his most nihilist ‘all I want to do is cry and bang, bang, bang my head until I start to fly’. Over a nearly six-minute playing time, rhythms disintegrate and wind down to be replaced by new melodies which rupture and twist back onto themselves.
This is followed by the similarly structured and lengthy ‘Under The Blue/Take Me In’ – lighter in mood but just as ambitious sonically, Kiyoko sings about watery raptures whilst a propulsive electro-funk drum machine intermittently ticks away like a Missy Elliott track from 2005.
The last stretch of Expectations doesn’t reach the highs of its experimental core but then neither does it revert back to the safe radio-pop of its opening tracks.
‘Palm Dreams’ has a debauched and airy disco vibe that takes its time to unfurl and is all the better for it and the penultimate song ‘Molecules’ allows Kiyoko to effortlessly ride a big and bruised melodic wave with stadium confidence.
Album closer, ‘Let It Be’, examines acceptance of a relationship that is done, an ending that you suspect the singer also thinks gains more power by putting it at the album’s close, and maybe she’s right. Musically the song is reminiscent of early Lana Del Rey with flinty hip-hop beats underpinning a pop sensibility that’s undeniable. Kiyoko makes it hers by introducing a camp-fire type warmth that is hopeful in all of the surrounding fallout.
Expectations becomes more impressive the longer it plays but also leaves doubts about what kind of pop-star Hayley Kiyoko wants to be. Is she the musically generic girl-next-door who happens to also be gay, or is she much more than? Maybe we’ll have to wait until that second album to find out.