King Princess - Cheap Queen - Album Review
Indie Pop - Pop Rock - Alternative R&B
By Vanessa Violo
Check out Vanessa's profile here!
Mikaela Straus’ career path as a musician was apparent from an early age, however, it wasn’t until her EP, Make My Bed, that she would be publicly introduced to the world as ‘King Princess’ (KP) and begin her success in the music industry.
Growing up in Brooklyn with her father and well-known producer/owner of ‘Mission Sound Recording studio’, it’s no wonder Straus’ musicianship is so developed and established for a 20-year-old. From a young age, Straus has been interacting with artists and producers as well as doing session singing work and learning everything she could about the industry and what kind of artist she wanted to be: ‘’I realised that I needed to be producing because I knew what I wanted [my music] to sound like’’.
When KP’s single 1950 was released in 2018, it almost immediately gained popularity following a Tweet from popular solo artist, Harry Styles. Two years and one album later, KP announced that she would be supporting Styles on the European leg of his 2020 ‘Love On Tour’ show.
After the success of her platinum EP, Straus had high expectations to live up to for the release of her 2019 debut album ‘Cheap Queen’- a heartbreak album which she claims is ‘’best listened to stoned and sad’’.
Straus has expressed her hope for the album to be listened to from start to finish and for audiences to not only hone-in on the production but also the lyrical narrative.
I did just this and found Cheap Queen to be a coherent piece of art, telling a vulnerable story of love and teenage anguish.
King Princess’s 2018 EP, Make My Bed, addressed themes of romance, forbidden love and complex post break-up emotions. These themes aren’t dissimilar to those in Cheap Queen.
Despite only being 20, Straus is able to convey her messages of love and equality through her art in creative and sophisticated ways. As an artist, KP is unapologetically her most authentic self, defying the social norms and gender expectations placed by society and the music industry. Through public media and her art alike, Straus is not one to shy away from expressing her societal views, especially when it comes to topics like gender expression and sexuality. From the onset, Straus’ has always remained open about being gay. In a radio interview, Straus herself called Cheap Queen a ‘’beautiful lesbian heartbreak album’’, emphasising and never avoiding speaking about the inspiration for the project.
In fact, the title song, ‘Cheap Queen’ is an homage to drag culture (as pictured in her album art). The inspiration also came from a television advertisement that aired in the 1930’s, blatantly warning society against the ‘dangers of lesbianism’. Instead of shaming the advertisement, KP samples lines from it- ironically and satirically but also in a way that is embracing the past. Straus says that “People are realizing that we’re bored of heteronormative narrative, because the reality is that there’s not a lot of gay people who are in my position. It’s changing, but it’s only become profitable and trendy to be gay in the last couple of years. Now it’s time for people to be out and gay and make music.”
Even though the themes in the album are queer oriented, they are also universal topics. This is important as Straus doesn’t want to be known in the music industry as a ‘queer pop’ artist- there is so much more to her art than her identity and personal life. '‘Queer pop’ is literally saying sexuality is a genre,” says Straus, “I don’t want to be grouped in with only gay people. That’s ridiculous.’’
Straus called the lack of gay representation in the music industry a ‘’systematic issue’’ saying that though it wasn’t commonly seen during her youth that nowadays ‘’everyone’s hungry for authenticity’’ and it’s ‘’really possible to be gay in this industry’’. Straus has said that she feels her music and creative work is ‘’providing some sort of respite from the heteronormative pop world’’ for younger generations. ‘’ It seems obvious but it’s really necessary’’. Straus doesn’t think about gendered music and the pronouns that she uses; she simply writes from a vulnerable and authentic place with the mentality that ‘’good music is universal and it’s forever-gay or straight’’.
Straus signed to Mark Ronson’s label ‘Zelig Records’ in 2018 but until then she was an independent artist who over the years has learnt to produce a lot of her own music with the ‘’figure out ways to make what you want and make it sound how you want’’ which she says has greatly benefited her during live performances and in the studio.
‘’There’s something so empowering about knowing what you want and executing it’’. I personally find it very impressive that Straus played all of the instruments on her EP , write all of her songs and is always involved in the musical production of her art.
When interviewed for Rolling Stone magazine, Straus said “[the album] starts in a very different place than it ends emotionally and that’s what I wanted… to take everyone through the journey.” Here she is commenting on how the album structure of each song from Tough on Myself to If You Think It’s Love and how they thematically follow the natural progression of dealing with all the complex emotions following a breakup.
Tough On Myself is the opener to the album- the first introduction to the Cheap Queen world that KP has created. This track establishes an 80’s synth pop vibe with synthetic sounding trumpets and pads, creating a sound that is beyond her years. The introduction of 808 drumbeats and use of vocoders give the nostalgic 80’s sound a modern twist. It is clear through the lyrics of the song that KP is a young person still learning to deal with her own self-deprecating thoughts while having romantic feelings saying ‘’ I get too tough on myself. Sitting alone making fun of myself. Is it so wrong to just want someone else? (I was thinking you and I could get together)’’ Although there aren’t many lyrics in the song, I find the words and music powerful enough to effectively convey her message and set the scene for the rest of the album.
Something I found particularly interesting about the album was KP’s inclusion of two significantly shorter songs: Useless Phrases and Do You Wanna See Me Crying? These tracks are both just over 1 minute long which, to me, raised the question of their significance. In my opinion, Do You Wanna See Me Crying? seems a bit unnecessary. While the chord progression is quite pretty and the use of the vocoder is really creative, the song is too short to spark interest or convey a deep enough message; it feels like a second thought. Useless Phrases on the other hand segues quite nicely into the title track with the use of what sounds like an old film projector, blending perfectly with the 1930’s samples in Cheap Queen.
Another song of interest is Ain’t Together, a song that talks about the universal act of falling in love. KP models this song after what she calls ‘’old school’’ bridges, which involved a minor to major chord progression. This is something I find can make a song more interesting and engaging musically, giving the ear something unexpectedly beautiful and almost melancholic. This highlights the hint of sadness in an otherwise romantic song: ‘’we say I love you but we ain’t together’’. Straus herself describes the backing vocals along with the drum fills as an ‘’orchestral sound’’ particularly around the line ‘’I can’t watch this fall apart’’, and while I agree that these musical elements are interesting, I’m not sure they’re full enough and have enough layers to be called ‘orchestral’. It’s a catchy and emotive song none- the-less.
On the deluxe version of the album, Straus includes 5 extra tracks, ending on a powerful indie/alternative rock song, Ohio. This ends on a very different note to If You Think It’s Love. Furthermore, Ohio song exposes Straus’ earliest music influence of rock music- beginning with a downtempo ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ (Led Zeppelin) then suddenly shifting mood to an up-tempo ‘Zeppelinesque’ ‘Heartbreaker’ inspired instrumental. The cliché and textbook breakup line ‘it’s not you, it’s me‘ is sarcastically referenced in the line ‘’Is it me or is it you?’’ which is followed by heavy drums and distorted guitar, showing an angrier side to the heartbreak and making KP’s influences outside of pop more apparent .
The Cheap Queen album is a beautiful homage to and celebration of gender and sexual expression. It explores the universal feelings and emotions that anyone who has dealt with complex relationships and love can relate to in one way or another- queer or not.
Straus hopes that someday queer expression through music will be normalised and writing music with gendered pronouns will no longer be a political statement. Until then, she’s proud to be a part of the movement and I look forward to hearing her music develop into what I hope is the future of mainstream popular music. It’s only up from here for King Princess.
Favourite Tracks: Tough On Myself & Cheap Queen
Least Favourite Track: Do You Wanna See Me Crying?
Album rating: 8/10