Published Oct 30, 2019Mikaela Straus exudes confidence. You can see it in her interviews (like our recent cover story), music videos and now, on her debut album as her musical alter ego King Princess.
To be sure, the 20-year old pop phenom comes by that self-assurance honestly. She grew up a studio rat, hanging around her audio engineer father's Mission Sound studio in Brooklyn, watching artists like Arctic Monkeys and Cat Power work. She's been dropping tracks on the internet since middle school and when she released her first "proper" single, "1950," last year, on super-producer Mark Ronson's vanity label no less, it became a viral phenom. By the time her debut EP, Make My Bed, arrived a few months later, publications were falling over themselves to declare her a new queer pop idol.
But Straus is more concerned about her music than any cultural positioning and in that regard, Cheap Queen is a total flex. She produced the record herself, pairing modern pop flourishes with languid guitar and piano, and kept the creative brain trust around writing and recording limited to a small group of trusted friends and collaborators. Father John Misty adds some drum work to "Ain't Together" and Tobias Jesso Jr. is the only credited feature, adding his high harmonies to the gorgeous "Isabel's Moment."
Her voice, husky, but strong, is the focal point. Across the album's 38-minutes, she sings about hangouts, hook-ups and heartbreak pulling from personal experience — many of the songs are rumoured to be about her relationship with Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg. But Straus threads the needle between the personal and universal, letting just enough light in to keep the experiences of a young LGBT woman relatable across the spectrum. Even when sampling from videogames, her melodies tap into the sentimentality of a classic torch song; the record is very much of the present, but pop music's rich past is hovering just underneath the surface.
"Hit the Back" is perhaps the record's greatest departure. Described as "an anthem for bottoms everywhere" it's the record's most overt nod to Straus's sexuality. It's also its greatest banger, a slow-building piano ballad that opens up into a throbbing dance floor filler in which Straus asks her lover "ain't I the best you had?" in a way that leaves no question as to the answer.
Straus has said that in most areas of her life, she's as insecure as anyone. But when it comes to her music, she makes no bones. "The truth is, I'm good at this" she recently told Exclaim!, and Cheap Queen certainly backs that up. (Zelig / Columbia)