BOTTOM LINE Using upbeat pop music to speak her mind.
Hayley Kiyoko’s debut album, “Expectations” (Atlantic), is deceptively simple, filled with upbeat dance rhythms and catchy pop hooks.
But there’s a depth of feeling to these songs that suggests something bigger. The irresistible groove of the first single, “Feelings,” would have worked if Kiyoko sang a takeout menu. Instead, she gives an honest look at inner conflict, singing, “I overcommunicate and feel too much. I just complicate it when I say too much.”
The way she chronicles depression, an outgrowth of her bout with post-concussion syndrome, on “Mercy/Gatekeeper” is wrenching, despite the uplifting musical backdrop. “All I want to do is cry,” she sings wistfully, “bang my head until I start to fly.”
However, Kiyoko is mostly upbeat, a cool mix of sass and swagger in “He’ll Never Love You (HNLY).” Even when she is frustrated, like in the sleek, breathy Janet Jackson-ish soul ballad “Sleepover,” she is still looking for the bright side. The bouncy “What I Need,” which teams her with Kehlani, is the kind of well-crafted, mainline pop that has made Carly Rae Jepsen beloved by critics and fans alike.
In a way, it’s the combination of her Disney Channel background and her unflinching honesty about her life that has earned Kiyoko the nickname of Lesbian Jesus from her fans. “Expectations” doesn’t feel like a debut as much as it feels like the start of something big, comparable to Lady Gaga’s debut “The Fame,” in the more carefree days before she became Mother Monster.
It’s a solid introduction from start to finish, closing with the classy, rock-tinged “Molecules” that mourns a loss and the dramatic pop anthem “Let It Be,” which seems like it wants to compete to be the soundtrack for high school graduations everywhere.
For Kiyoko, “Expectations” couldn’t be higher, but the music is so good she seems set to surpass even the loftiest ones.