Review: Cheap Queen by King Princess

Published

Credit: Columbia Records

Ilia Hionidou
Writer

King Princess unapologetically expresses her “gay sob” with this stunning debut.

In the space of a few short years, Brooklyn-born Mikaela Straus – better known by her stage name King Princess – has racked up half a million Instagram followers, bagged an admirer in Harry Styles, and signed a record deal with Mark Ronson. Following the positive reception of her 2018 EP Make My Bed, the 20-year-old released her debut album Cheap Queen on 25 October, after months of teasing new material on renowned stages, including Glastonbury and Coachella.

Early released singles, such as Prophet and title track Cheap Queen experiment more openly with production than her previous songs, lacing smoky melodies through understated drum beats and staggered electric piano riffs. These tracks segue seamlessly from the thematic commentary of her previous projects; with Prophet, Straus continues to “queer” religious imagery as metaphor, as she does in Holy and Pussy Is God while her album title Cheap Queen nods to the LGBTQ+ community: “We are all cheap queens. It’s a drag term for someone who is resourceful, who makes something out of nothing, who is a creator on a budget. That’s how I feel.” This is not the first time Straus has paid homage to the LGBTQ+ community through her music; she develops upon the sentiment of her debut single 1950, a lamentation of queer 20th century love, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 book The Price of Salt.

The album does, however, take a turn from overt commentary – such as the discussion on class performativity in her 2018 release Upper West Side – to instead pinpoint the visceral reality of 21st century heartbreak and vulnerability. Watching My Phone uses strings and synth to express a gentle loneliness which complements the bittersweet dejection of Homegirl. Straus here uses acoustic strumming and syncopated bass to lead to the poignant concession, “You don’t have to say it / We’re friends at the party / I’ll give you my body at home”. Homegirl taps into the yearning frustration of closeted desire, an increasingly prevalent theme in the songs of other LGBTQ+ artists, such as Hayley Kiyoko’s What I Need and girl in red’s i wanna be your girlfriend.

The tracks If You Think It’s Love and You Destroyed My Heart take a more sardonic approach to heartbreak. In the former, Straus asserts through synth harmonies and electronic adlibs “If this is love / I want my money back” meanwhile, amidst the latter’s folk-rock tones, she jibes “But I’m a better fag, and you’re an amateur / And it’s cute you wanna be my friend” Funk ballad Hit the Back places penultimate on the album’s track list, but is sure to serve as King Princess’ best received song. Here, the mood moves away from heartbreak and instead employs electronic overtones to support its establishment as a “sad dance-floor banger”, written to be “the anthem for bottoms everywhere”. The song is as advertised on her Instagram and is accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek choreography video.

While her lyrics employ metaphor and subtle undertones of queer themes, King Princess’ visuals explicitly show her interest in gender expression and its variety. Her videos embody the retro tone of her music by visualising the vinyl quality of tracks such as Useless Phrases with 90s cassette effects, whilst also bringing to the fore questions about heteronormative genders. In her lyric video for Ain’t Together Straus takes on the role of jock and cheerleader. She elaborates on this concept in the Prophet video, during which the singer-jock (sporting a No. 69 jersey) becomes a live cake that her crush presents to dinner party guests.

In this album, King Princess shows a complexity and a vulnerability that she had hinted at but until this moment had not entirely realised. Straus’ 70s beats are infectiously current, and are reminiscent of Lana’s anguished melancholia, featuring flickers of influence from Lorde’s breakup ballads along with the propelling bass and guitar melodies of Maggie Rogers. Undoubtedly, King Princess places alongside Clairo, Soak, girl in red, Shura and others as an emergent figurehead for young people – whether they identify as LGBTQ+ or not – as Cheap Queen strikes a balance between playful experimentation and her ultimately unapologetic “gay sob”.