The last two years have been a rollercoaster for King Princess. The 20-year-old has just released her debut album Cheap Queen, a record that’s already seeing her acquire a place in modern music history as a subverter and renegade, pushing herself and her music forward as much as she defies her own boundaries.
There are a number of factors contributing to the strength of King Princess — real name Mikaela Straus — as an artist. For one, she’s a multi-instrumentalist, a quality that gives her the flexibility to co-produce most of her music, giving her an ownership of her sound not always afforded to new artists.
This level of talent also allows her a creativity which stands out even amongst the swathes of other pop singers that emerge week after week. Whilst it is fair to label her music as pop, Straus’ songs thus far have swerved in different directions, resulting in a discography touching on Beyonce-esque epic RnB, to the kind of funk sound which made her record label owner Mark Ronson a success.
But, taking a look back at the young artist’s beginnings, it’s clear she would have it no other way. Part of Straus’ strength of style can be put down to one a pivotal decision she made at the age of only 11: she turned down a recording contract.
Whilst this decision may not seem particularly noble or noteworthy to some, consider how illustrious the life of even the semi-famous could seem to someone of Straus’ age. But she didn’t feel ready: “I felt that if I didn’t know exactly what I wanted my shit to sound like, and I didn’t know who I wanted to be involved and I didn’t know what my production sounded like, I had no place signing a record deal”, she told one interview in 2018.
When she got to college, she wrote her first EP, and this, she says, is where her true sound was born. ‘Make My Bed’ made new fans and achieved commercial success, too — it soared to number one on New Zealand’s official single and albums chart — whilst the EP’s lead single “1950” brought the artist firmly into the spotlight.
The song — a tribute to the 1952 novel The Price of Salt, a classic of lesbian literature (Straus is openly gay) — is one which celebrates openly gay love and the change in acceptance of it in the last several decades. “1950” has been celebrated as a modern equality anthem, as well as a beautiful record in its own right. Songs on the record display Straus’ sense of humour (Upper West Side), boldness (Holy) and unapologetic emotional rawness (Talia).
Empowerment is a strong theme identifiable in both the presence of the artist and her music. In her lyrics, she comes forward with unquestionably clear statements of who she is/how you can receive her: genderqueer, pop singer, gay artist – she neither boxes herself in nor rejects any labels. King Princess is an example of owning your identity, in both style and substance – something many artists strive for, but few achieve without compromising along the way.
King Princess’ debut album Cheap Queen brings forth a side of the artist to which most fans and critics probably turned a blind eye: the anxiety and stress created by newfound fame. Straus told Billboard in September that the overwhelming success of “1950” brought about “complete stress and anxiety, and not knowing what to do with myself or with my body, and then also being in love”. These feelings are unmistakable in the album, which comes without the bigger songs of her early career (“1950”, “Pussy is God”) and is instead filled with what can most simply be described as ballads, but have much more room for exploration beyond that description.
Regardless of any changes in overall sound noted by critics, Straus’ message throughout the album is delivered with the utmost clarity: she is fully formed, confident, and here to stay. Take the hook of “Cheap Queen”: “I can be good sometimes, I’m a cheap queen, I can be what you like, I can be bad sometimes, I’m a real queen, I can make grown men cry.”
The album’s name comes from a Drag term for a queen who is “resourceful, making something out of not very much”. This title both stands in contrast to the overall triumphant sound of the album, and speaks of the modesty of Straus, her worldliness, and style, which fans will enjoy watching grow in the coming years.
Dan Cody is Editor-in-Chief at No Majesty.