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Open a history textbook, and you’ll find that few monarchs have risen to power as quickly as King Princess. 20-year-old singer-songwriter Mikaela Straus made Brooklyn her palace and music her ticket to pop royalty without ever donning a crown. With the 2018 release of her debut single, she became the first signee to Mark Ronson’s label Zelig Records. Straus’ subsequent flurry of singles, covers, and EPs earned her an entourage of loyal fans befitting of her stage name, which she chose to represent the “complexity of [her] gender.” Straus, who identifies as genderqueer and lesbian, pays homage to love in all its forms on her debut album, “Cheap Queen.”
For Straus, “Cheap Queen” is more than just another royal title — she conceived the album’s name as a nod to the drag performers whose theatrical glamour influences both her songwriting process and stage presence. “I’m a huge supporter and fan of drag,” she said in a 2018 interview with Harper’s Bazaar. “When I do makeup, it's performative … I use it as a tool to talk about gender and sexuality.” Like the iridescent eyeshadow and bold lipstick she sports on the cover of “Cheap Queen,” Straus’ music provides a vibrant canvas for her views.
On the title track, clean synths and a painstakingly precise drumbeat hold the languid lilt of Straus’ voice in place. The lines “I’m a cheap queen / I can be what you like,” which she delivers with enough detached self-assurance to rival the most pampered of princesses, affirm her belief in fluidity on multiple scales. On a personal level, Straus could be conveying the importance of adaptability in a relationship; the song’s leisurely pace and conversational tone suggest a meeting with a lover or close friend. The lyrics could also be an attempt to highlight the malleability of her artistic persona and even gender itself. Either way, the seemingly endless iterations of the chorus give listeners plenty of chances to guess her intentions. Although slight changes in instrumentation introduce much-needed variety, the song’s repetitiveness is far from subtle. But with Straus’ knack for crafting instantly memorable tunes, who can blame her for throwing nuance to the wind? She’ll still have you humming “Cheap Queen” for days.
The extended instrumental intro to “Useless Phrases” proves that Straus’ melodies are just as compelling without words. After nearly 40 seconds of overlapping synth motifs, Straus rebukes an ex with petulant bravado: “You say you want me back / And I don’t usually entertain such useless phrases,” she sings, enunciating each fierce syllable with doubt and yearning. As the track fades out, though, an unexpectedly sullen outro undermines her apparent resolve.
Straus lends her deceptively simple lyrics an added layer of meaning by challenging traditional conceptions of sexuality and gender roles, especially on the album’s many love songs. The searching guitar ballad “Ain’t Together,” sustained by softly strummed chords and Straus’ coolly heartrending inflection, explores the emotional upheaval of falling in love while questioning the necessity of commitment. On “Prophet,” alternating verses of expressive crooning and breathy falsetto build to a lavish, visceral finale as Straus reflects on the obsessive allure of romance and fame. “Watching My Phone” reveals her talent for generating pathos from the mundane, framing the chorus’ two repeating lines — “Watching my phone / Thinking ‘bout you” — with melancholic strings. Her breezy flair belies a preternatural understanding of love’s purpose in a world sometimes reluctant to accept it.
With the release of “Cheap Queen,” Straus cements her place in the kingdom of pop, marking the first chapter in her storybook career. Cheap or not, King Princess is a queen like no other, and nothing can stop her ascent to the throne. Long may she reign.
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