King Princess Explores Relationship Intricacies With a Non-Binary Edge on Debut Album ‘Cheap Queen’
Brooklyn singer-songwriter Mikaela Mullaney Straus, who records under the moniker King Princess, grew up in a musical family, became a multi-instrumentalist early in life, and was offered a record deal at the mere age of eleven. Ever the rebellious spirit, she turned it down, choosing to further develop her sound and demand greater artistic freedom when the time was ready. At age nineteen, she released her acclaimed single “1950,” a tribute to Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt,” a lesbian romance story ahead of its time. As one might guess from her stage name, Straus identifies as non-binary, and this makes its way well into her music. A year after her breakthrough single, she has released an exceptional debut album, “Cheap Queen,” which explores the intricacies of relationships from a singular vantage point, and showcases a unique, edgy, and versatile voice.
After a brief overture, Straus begins, “Nobody told me to sit down and shut up,” singing with an attitude that suggests an entirely different song than what unfolds by the time of the titular refrain, in which she admits she gets “Too Tough on Myself,” and goes on to ask, “Is it so wrong to just want someone else?” The band trods along at a slow shuffle that matches the wistful lyrics as Straus sings with soulful verve. Then comes one of the most delightfully quirky tracks, “Useless Phrases.” A mere minute and change, it starts with vintage sounds that create a nostalgic mood, before devolving into a rather quaint, subdued circus of gliding notes, over which Straus sings, “You say you want me back / And I don’t usually entertain such useless phrases, baby,” in an ironically joyful, swaying singsong, until her voice gets pitched down, and the songs slows to an abrupt halt.
The title track starts with more muffled, retro sounds, and finds Straus appropriating a bit of hip-hop braggadocio, boasting about drinking smoking, going out, and talking about herself too much, her lines interspersed with a clipped, archaic sample of a voice saying, “smiling for the audience,” conveying a jokey type of self-aware, playful, ditzy haughtiness. The song continues in this vein, with a bridge of some vaguely jazzy cascading melodies, and a catchy chorus on which Straus sings, “I’m a cheap queen… I can be good sometimes… I can be bad sometimes.” It’s a surefire single, full of personality.
“Ain’t Together” is a brilliant twist on the love song. For generations, we’ve heard innumerable outpourings of desperate longing. For this track, Straus coolly sings about a relationship in which both parties openly acknowledge that they’re in love, but comfortably avoid the committal aspect. Straus has rather hilariously described the song as “cute and sad, perfect for any occasion. Wedding, funeral, corporate function, lesbian seance.” Next, “Do you wanna see me crying?” is a song about gaining confidence and self esteem, and accruing momentum, with Straus’ hushed, hazy self-affirmations alternating with a sampled variation of the titular line, over a designedly ramshackle, minimal beat, framing the affair as a lightheartedly jeering spurring on. Midway, the refrain disappears, and Straus’ vocals come into clear focus, as if declaring a final victory.
On “Heaven,” Straus ventures into the cinematic throwback stylings often explored by Lana del Rey. Her non-binary indentification, held at bay so far, comes out slightly on this song, as she compare sherself with male suitors. It’s a killer love song with some of the album’s most vividly racy lyrics in its chorus. Straus sings, “And you taste like danger, but I feel so safe in your arms / And I like the way that you talk slow / Spelling my name with your tongue,” eventually promising, “I’ll give you my body at home.” On the second single, “Prophet,” she returns to her more sprightly soul side, but continues to drop cryptically poetic lines like “Everyone wants something from your soul on the molly,” before arriving at the rather uncharacteristically straightforward chorus line, “’Cause I can only think about you.” A well-selected single, it packs a pop punch, and eventually develops into a electric-guitar-filled jam out.
A softer moment comes with the piano-driven “Isobel’s Moment.” Again, there are especially evocative lyrics like “Your clothes are still in my drawers / Like you’re haunting my home.” There’s a reprise of the theme teased in “Ain’t Together,” in lines like “Still trying to draw all the lines / Through my friends and my lovers,” leading to the conclusion “It ain’t clear how we feel / When we spend all this time with each other.” Toward the end, Canadian singer-songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr. joins Straus for some ethereal, reverb-soaked dueting, tapping into an unprecedentedly otherworldly aesthetic. Straus continues to effortlessly switch modes convincingly, following with another beat-driven song, “Trust Nobody,” this time echoing the smitten sentiment of “Heaven,” with lines like “I don’t ever trust nobody / No, I don’t ever trust, but I trust you,” and bringing back the loose instrumentation that concluded “Prophet,” as she repeats “I just wanna be with you” like a mantra.
“Watching My Phone” rings like an offset of “Ain’t Together,” with Straus admitting being made vulnerable by a paramour’s relative independence, to the point that she finds herself alone, desperately staring at her phone, presumably wishing for a call. A light guitar arrangement opens into lush strings, and a stuttering synth bass comes in out of the blue, making for an understated sonic hodgepodge that mirrors the messy emotions expressed. All the sad self-pity dissipates in a flash upon the strikingly titled “You Destroyed My Heart,” a relentless telloff song, on which Straus charges, “You destroyed my heart… You lost the part,” with provocatively worded snippets like “I’m a better fag, and you’re an amateur” peppered through. Instrumentally, there are vague echoes of ‘60s girl groups, in the hushed backing vocals and era-specific guitar tonalities and melodies. Things get quite kinky on “Hit the Back,” which Straus has described as “the anthem for bottoms everywhere,” demonstrated in such lyrics as “Underneath this table feels so good to me,” “I’m your pet,” and “I don’t care if you degrade me,” set to an oddly upbeat, cheery instrumental that seems an apt way to express the idea of pleasure found in unconventional ways.
After all of this flighty shuttling between emotions, the album comes to some resolution upon the sparse, ruminative closer “If You Think It’s Love.” Straus begins, “If this is love / I want my money back / ‘Cause I could use the check / To spend it on a better heart / To wear upon my sleeve.” In these few lines, she’s succinctly juxtaposed two of the contradictory sentiments at the core of so many songs on the album — reservations about the conventions of love, and submission to the crazed infatuation that comes with it. Come the outro, she merely shrugs, “if you think it’s love, it is.” This single song ties the exceptionally volatile album neatly together, framing it as an articulate, expression of the whirlwinds into which relationships throw us. Straus dons different voices and slips into varied styles gracefully, filling her songs with clever, unassumingly poetic lyrics, and makes for an altogether impressively creative debut.
“Cheap Queen” is available Oct. 25 on Apple Music.