Cheap Queen undoubtedly establishes King Princess' talent, but it encounters issues with contrived affectations and productions that show less experimentation than seen on previous singles.
Zelig / Columbia
25 October 2019
What you can't fix, you feature. King Princess, née Mikaela Straus, frequently applies this mentality to her songwriting by using explicit honesty. In breakout single "1950", she professes a God-level infatuation but can't shake personal feelings of inadequacy: "I hope that you're happy with me in your life." To heartbreaker "Talia", Straus admits a few drinks will send her right back to her ex-lover's bed. Despite a record deal offer as a preteen and a voice that lyrically and vocally belies her years, Straus still struggles with universal, plebeian obstacles: feelings of inferiority, poor self-control, oversharing.
This candid air, coupled with Straus's innate talent, is what makes her music accessible and refreshingly frank. Cheap Queen opens with her immediately directing that observant scrutiny inward. Lethargic but melodic, "Tough on Myself" introduces a much meeker ruler than the one whose earlier singles demand worship. Its soulful sway is enough to lull you in and introduce you to Straus's world, where elements of folk-rock, hip-hop, and lo-fi combine for a streamlined and safe debut.
Cheap Queen undoubtedly establishes Straus's talent, but it encounters issues with contrived affectations and productions that show less experimentation than seen on previous singles. Straus often dips into a husky voice for a sultry quality that also hints at the possibility of vocal nodes in the future. On "Homegirl", a poignant look at the complicated thrill of gay relationships, this effect distracts from otherwise sharp observations. "Trust Nobody" alike suffers from forced vocal effects, this time drawled-out verses that cannot mask the beige production behind her.
When honesty and articulation match up, Cheap Queen hits its stride. "I'm gettin' too cocky since everyone wants me / It's harder to be myself," quite a biting line from the title track, but a humanizing one from an artist aware of their rising star. Straus is both "cheap" and "real", at your service, but also 'at your own risk'. Her candor retains its effect when she reveals she feels "better with my heart out" on the much too short "Do You Wanna See Me Cry?". Staring at a touchscreen feels desperate at the moment, but disclosing it on "Watching My Phone" vocalizes her infatuation for the apple of her eye.
Honesty prevails as the best policy on the penultimate "Hit the Back", a self-described ode to bottoming and much-needed tempo boost that carries the album to its finish line. In light of Robyn Crawford's disclosures about her relationship with Whitney Houston, Straus's unabashed celebration of queerness in her music resounds as a victory. The twangy "You Destroyed My Heart" precedes it like a pep talk, with Straus declaring herself "a better fag / and you're an amateur".
For all these triumphs, the most entertaining part of Cheap Queen happens to be it's most bothersome, "Useless Phrases". Here, the vocals are rounded and smooth, effortlessly rolling above goofy droning sounds and a playful drum machine. This singular moment reconciles the throaty timbre and cautious instrumentation of the album's more frustrating moments. Unfortunately, it's only an interlude, but in a little over a minute, it draws you into King Princess's court. Here's hoping this sound will curry favor there in the future.