The pop singer’s debut is a promising reintroduction that shows her emotional and melodic strengths if she can avoids the clichés of influencer culture and the digital age.

In June 2015, a 20-year-old singer named Kiara Saulters uploaded the song “Gold” to SoundCloud under the moniker Kiiara. Its chorus had a trance-like pull, chopping up vocals and splicing them into an indecipherable hyperpop concoction. Within a year, Kiiara had landed a deal with Atlantic, and “Gold” was climbing the Billboard Hot 100 chart, where she found herself in the company of once-rising contemporaries Olivia O’Brien and Halsey. The popularity of “Gold” threatened to define her career, though she already considered it to be old before it had even reached its peak. In the age of viral hits, artists like Kiiara are often forced to milk the moment or risk becoming one-hit wonders, with little room to grow into their sound.

Lil Kiiwi is a promising reintroduction to Kiiara, who, at 25, is now making pop music that grapples with the impulsiveness of her early 20s. Having spent three years releasing one-off singles that experimented with hyperpop, alternative R&B, and rock, she now ditches the chopped vocals in favor of whispered admissions over lo-fi beats and plucky electro-pop. Lil Kiiwi carves out a sustainable space for Kiiara in the modern pop canon, so long as she doesn’t fall victim to low-hanging, predictable clichés.

Kiiara can be a captivating storyteller when she fully commits to the song. Across the album, she takes on the role of a vengeful ex, cuts down the egos of men, and escapes into drugs to avoid confronting her own feelings. Her music is most effective when she reflects on past relationships—the ones that failed, those that could have been, and others that never should have happened. On “Accidental,” she owns up to sabotaging a potential relationship by being dismissive and manipulative, but ultimately deflects and fumbles her attempted apology: “The drugs fucked my head up/Why did you let me?/Why didn’t you come and get me?” She sings about wanting to resist an attraction to danger. But when her lyrics consider the possibility of what could have been had she chosen differently in various scenarios, they’re heavy with remorse and angst.

When Kiiara blames her actions on being intoxicated or emotionally unavailable, her impulsivity is chalked up to her being young and overwhelmed with life; but the haze dissipates as she analyzes these moments and past relationships with maturity. A sense of loneliness echoes throughout “Never Let You” as she yearns for a do-over of her career, relationships and college. Defeat piles up with each line of the ballad “Empty,” where she resents sacrificing so much of herself for a love that left her drained, and she wonders, “Where were you on my darkest day?”

Rather than bringing the same intensity of these unshielded emotions to her rousing hyperpop performances, Kiiara hides behind the pervasive clichés of influencer culture and the digital age. “So Sick” recruits blackbear to complain about the toxicity of using Instagram to keep tabs on an ex. Elsewhere, Felix Snow haunts the album on the 2017 leftover “Whippin’,” which attempts to replicate “Gold” but sounds stale more than five years later.

Kiiara does better in the company of collaborators who play to her charm instead of watering it down. On “I Still Do,” electro-pop drops bounce as she sings about still loving someone who betrayed her trust. Kiiara could have easily built an album out of the one-off singles released in recent years, but on Lil Kiiwi, she makes a true effort at encapsulating the past five years of her life, how they changed her, and what she learned in the process.