Album Review: King Princess - Cheap Queen

Because I simply spend so much time on the internet, attempting to find new music that both interests me as a listener, and a music writer, I’d like to think that I would have eventually found King Princess on my own.

Overlooking the review of her debut EP, Make My Bed, that graced the Pitchfork homepage in June of 2018, it wasn’t until the first guest on my podcast, my co-worker Vicki, selected “Talia” as one of the songs she wanted to discuss on the show, that I was not even properly introduced to King Princess—but introduced never the less. 

And even after following King Princess—the moniker chosen by Mikaela Straus, the 21 year old singer, songwriter, and performer behind the name ‘King Princess’—on Instagram, it wasn’t until I pressed play on Straus’ full-length debut, Cheap Queen, that I would consider myself to have been properly introduced to both her, and her work.

An arresting and impressive collection of songs, Cheap Queen finds Straus more than fulfilling the potential she showed on the slow burning, glitchy early single “1950,” the sensual longing of the aforementioned “Talia,” and the brazen, confrontational sexuality of the non-album track “Pussy is God.” Allowing the long-playing format to work in her favor, giving her enough space to, at times quite slowly, construct and unpack her recurring themes, Cheap Queen could easily be called ‘indie pop’—thematically adult-oriented enough to make it appeal to the Pitchfork sect, but infectious and slick enough that some of these songs wouldn’t sound out of place on Top 40 radio—the album is brimming with surprising moments that are undeniably well written and incredibly catchy, as Straus, as lyricist, works to walk the very fine lines between love and lust; and between sexuality and sensuality.

Cheap Queen is one of those somewhat rare albums that can be parsed out to memorable singles and other stand out, important moments that’ll linger long after the infectious nature of a single or ‘big’ song has waned—but it also works well as a whole, from beginning to end. Letting it play through provides the listener with the opportunity to become more accustomed to Straus’ sense of self-deprecating humor, the, at times, desperate longing found in a handful of these songs, as well as the overall…dare I even say it…feeling of fun, or at least not taking itself too seriously, that runs throughout. Yes, it’s tough to imagine within the contemporary popular music I find myself listening to regularly, but Cheap Queen is a fun record, even with its few somber, pensive moments, and I get the impression, based on her presence on Instagram, that Straus is more than likely a fun person. 

Spread across 13 tracks, two of which I would consider to be short interludes in between songs, there are two songs that stood out for me immediately during my initial listen of Cheap Queen—the first arrives early on in the form of the all too short titular track. Released as a single a full five moths ahead of the rest of the record, “Cheap Queen” is not, musically anyway, indicative of the rest of the album; however it does boast what has to be, hands down, the album’s most fascinating production and arranging. 

Structured around old, disembodied samples of a female voice, apparently pulled from a 1930s Public Service Announcement about ‘aggressive lesbians’ in the workplace, those are interwoven carefully into the spaces and pauses in the song’s chopped up, skittering piano riff, Straus describes the song’s verses as being an ode to community, and her close group of friends. It’s not the verses, though, that make the song stick—or at least, made it so it jumped out and grabbed my attention immediately. It’s the song’s very reserved, slithering, memorable refrain. 

The title of the song (and therefore the album) comes from a term that, unsurprisingly, originated within the drag community, for someone who makes something out of nothing, and is resourceful. And Straus claims that this song was, originally, intended to be an interlude, but her ‘team,’ as she puts it, pushed her to develop the idea into a fully fledged song. “I can be good sometimes—I’m a cheap queen; I can be what you like,” she sings while a glitchy, sparse drum track shuffles its way in between the piano key plunking. “And I can be bad sometimes—I’m a cheap queen; I can make grown men cry,” she sings, with almost a small amount of glee in her voice while she confesses this trait.

Straus explaining that “Cheap Queen” was originally an interlude makes sense given its short running time—not that pop songs need to be, like, stretched out over six or seven minutes, but musically, this song is so good, and locks into such a solid groove, that you kind of wish that it never ended; or, at the very least, didn’t end as soon as it does.

While some of her contemporaries may try to walk the line between full out bangers and delicate, devastating balladry, there isn’t too much of the latter on Cheap Queen, but when Straus goes for it, she really goes for it, and it really works—the contemplative, palpable longing of “Watching My Phone” is the second track that stood out as one of the album’s finest moments. Arriving well into the second half of the record, the song is also much, much shorter than it could be, and its aesthetic is a stark contrast to the slinking electro-tinged pop of “Cheap Queen.”

As a whole, a bulk of Cheap Queen could be fairly described as ‘love songs,’ but many of them are non-traditional—many of them are about heartbreak, or the confusion and difficulties that come from a relationship, or from trying to love somebody. “I know you destroy the things you love to save yourself, and I’m passing through your life,” Straus sings tenderly in the song’s devastating opening line. Then, later in the song’s second verse, “I apologize for holding you so tight you couldn’t breathe, and thinking you’d be fine.”

But it’s the song’s powerful, sweeping refrain that drives home the heartbreak and drama built into the song’s lyrics. There’s this gorgeous, haunting vocal descent, tossed out in front of the refrain as an aside, almost, of “Maybe it will change, but,” prior to the actual refrain coming in, which features some very vivid, and borderline cutting, imagery—“You ain’t all I ever wanted in a package,” she sings, sounding almost wounded. “And your independence throws me off my balance—and I’m alone watching my phone, thinking ‘bout you babe.”

Cheap Queen is a bit of a slow burning record that really does take its time unfolding itself to its listeners. It’s immediately enjoyable, but structurally, it requires patience while it gathers its momentum, with things picking up after the titular track, as Straus slides things into the simmering, acoustic lovelorn “Ain’t Together”; then, shortly after that, a similarly acoustic and similarly lovelorn “Homegirl,” both of which, thematically, deal with the struggles and confusion that come from a relationship. Or, in this case, when one person within a ‘relationship’ doesn’t want to label it so—“Bein’ chill with you—oh it kills, I ain’t chill at all,” she sings before the very blatant refrain: “We say ‘I love you,’ but we ain’t together. Do you think labels make it taste much better?”

In “Homegirl,” things take a slightly more serious turn lyrically, as Straus dissects the difficulties of being comfortable, and publicly open in a same sex relationship—“You don’t have to say it—we’re friends at the party; I’ll give you my body at home.”

Cheap Queen isn’t all mid-tempo, or even slower than that, acoustic jams about borderline unrequited love; I mean, yes, there’s a lot of that, but the pacing does pick up throughout, and the album is constructed in such a way that never relies too much on one style for too long before it effortlessly and almost naturally segues into another. 

Straus dips into a bombastic, slinking hip-hop groove on “Prophet,” and then a slightly less bombastic, but no less slinking, or groove-oriented sound on the almost jazzy arrangements on “Trust Nobody,” and then really pulls out all the stops—both musically, and lyrically, on what she calls an ‘anthem for bottoms everywhere,’ “Hit The Back,” which is, by far, the album’s most energetic moment, pulling together a little bit of everything Straus does as King Princess—the song begins as a tender ballad, with slightly ribald lyrics (“I need you to search my clothing….I need you to be my motor, and run me ’til I can’t go further”), then quickly shifts into a fast paced electro-pop bounce that she rides until the end.

Cheap Queen is on the cusp of being a concept album—the songs were, apparently, written sequentially, and while tracking the tumult, confusion, frustration, longing, lust, and possibly love that come from the relationship depicted, the album ends where the relationship also ends—allegedly many of the songs on the record are about Straus’ ex, Amandla Stenberg. Straus herself has been coy about how many of these songs are a direct response or reflection to her past relationship, but the album concludes with a glitchy, electronic-tinged break up ballad, “If You Think It’s Love,” a song that had very little to hide lyrically—“If this is love, I want my money back,” she sings. “‘Cause I could use the check to spend it on a better hear to wear on my sleeve.”

Fame has come fast for Straus—something else she discusses at various points on Cheap Queen—and network television appearances on “The Late Show” and “Saturday Night Live” have placed her into the homes of people who may not otherwise have ever heard the name King Princess, as did a high profile, long form interview in Playboy (people read it for the articles) that praised her for pushing ‘pushing pop music past its PG-13 limits.’ 

And yes, that’s part of what Cheap Queen is about—it’s ‘pop music for adults.’ Rarely does Straus ever, if at all, hide behind any kind of flimsy metaphors in her lyrics—while at times surprising, it’s never raunchy for the sake of simply being raunchy or calling attention to itself.  

With it being pop music for adults, even at all of 21 years old, Straus has managed to hold a Technicolor, kaleidoscopic mirror up to facets of the human (adult) condition—the complications and difficulties that come from loving, from being in love, from lust and confusion, longing, and finally heartbreak, she manages to cram it all, and even a little fun and humor, into the bluntly honest, wildly diverse, and slickly executed, catchy collection of songs that make up Cheap Queen. It’s a record that succeeds not only because of its content and production, but also because Straus is such a charismatic and intelligent songwriter. 

Cheap Queen is out now on Columbia/Zelig.