Last month, King Princess posed for Playboy. In the magazine – which until relatively recently was known for its hyper-feminised nudes angled towards straight men – she wears a leather collar and sticks her middle finger up to the camera. Later on, she’s in an American football neck roll and little else; her fringe sweaty, armpit hair on display, eyes staring straight into the lens. These are images that grab you by both shoulders and shake you a bit. Powerful and stylish. And they’ve got little to do with the male gaze. Hers is a gender fluid queer gaze – but also, it's a gaze of her own making.
King Princess – real name Mikaela Straus – has had an unusual career trajectory so far. The Brooklyn-born, 20-year-old is the daughter of a successful recording engineer, and his grandparents co-owned Macy's, so it's not as if she sprung from nowhere. Still, The Teens were obsessed with her long before she’d put out her first EP, last year's Make My Bed. Before today, which sees the release of her debut album Cheap Queen, she’d only released nine songs (none of them chart toppers). And yet you’ve probably clocked her on the cover of multiple magazines. She’s collaborated with Mark Ronson and Perfume Genius. She’s also racked up over half a million Instagram followers, and is almost becoming a household name.
It could be easy to say that King Princess is more about style over substance – a cool heartthrob for queer girls who have long deserved their own Harry Styles or Troye Sivan. Or at least it might have been, before Cheap Queen. But the 13-track album is gorgeous. Blending syrupy sweet, soulful tones with production that sounds scratchy and retro one moment, intricate and forward-facing the next, here is a piece of work that elevates King Princess from star to artist, rather than the other way round (which is how it usually goes).
Much of the power of this album lies in King Princess' voice and words – both of which can be sweet and casual and then disarmingly vulnerable within the space of a line. “I like the way that you talk slow / Spelling my name with your tongue so...” she sings softly in “Homegirl” over a pared-back, sugary guitar melody, before she gets you in the gut with the next line: “You don't have to say it / We're friends at the party / I'll give you my body at home.”
Later, in “Watching My Phone,” she laments over an ex-lover's tendency to throw everything away without considering the full weight of her losses. “And I know you destroy the things you love to save yourself / And I'm passing through your life,” her voice glides over glittering piano and strings. “And I know you can't bear to see me go / But make me leave in the middle of the night.” So much of Cheap Queen is like this: gentle and loving, but wrapped around heartbreak, and packing a bite.
This isn’t to say the album lacks hooks. Cheap Queen is full of them: pop flourishes, disco shuffles and R&B licks exist in surprising corners. “Hit the Back” is a soul ballad which slowly unfurls into a sad dance-floor banger, “Trust Nobody” has the sort of chorus that you'll find yourself singing absentmindedly in the days afterwards and “Watching My Phone” spends its last 30 seconds awash with dark synth. In other words, King Princess has presented us with a heartbreak album to cry, dance and sit alone to. It does all of those things separately, and sometimes all at once.
There have been a lot of brilliant pop albums this year, and Cheap Queen joins them comfortably (including Caroline Polachek's Pang, which we recommended last Friday). But the most exciting thing about this album isn't necessarily just the album itself. It's the fact this is her first album – we're at the very beginning of where, and who, she is as an artist.
King Princess is only 20, but has already crafted a very distinct world around her. Hers is a world where you can be staring, sweaty-faced and defiant, into a camera lens with your middle finger up. But you can also be heartbroken, sing ballads about it, as if toughness and softness are not different things, but in fact just constantly informing each other.
King Princess' Cheap Queen is out today. You can buy / stream it via her website, Apple Music and Spotify.