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Mikaela Straus had the kind of come up that every artist dreams about.
Growing up as the daughter of a recording engineer, Straus learned the ins and outs of recording and production at an early age, along with a few other basics: bass, guitar, piano, and drums. And despite her industry connect and considerable instrumental knowledge, it’s Straus’ earnest alto that earned her near-immediate recognition as King Princess. When her debut single “1950” was released in the spring of 2018, Straus made it clear the song’s title was a reference to the 1952 Patricia Highsmith novel The Price Of Salt — later republished as Carol and made into a stunning movie starring Cate Blanchett in 2015 — cementing her status as an openly queer woman in pop at the age of 19. The single was so immediately resonant that when Harry Styles himself requested King Princess open for him on tour, she demurred, insisting that she wasn’t ready. The power of the single remained.
“Historically a publicly unaccepted but incredibly rich culture, queer love was only able to exist privately for a long time, expressed in society through coded art forms,” Straus wrote back when she initially released the song. “I wrote this song as a story of unrequited love in my own life, doing my best to acknowledge and pay homage to that part of history.” Since then, she’s only contributed even more gems to the queer pop canon, culminating in the release of her debut album, Cheap Queen, which dropped today via Mark Ronson’s imprint for Columbia Records, Zelig Recordings. Notably missing are both “1950” and another early ear-catching openly queer celebration, “Pussy Is God.”
While a highly influential indie artist like St. Vincent has inched ever closer to publicly declaring her queerness, and other pop stars like Hayley Kiyoko and Troye Sivan have broadcasted it from the jump in catchy hooks and bombastic choruses, Straus is both more subdued and more intimate on Cheap Queen, offering a torch song perspective on the internal conflict that many queer people still face in a highly judgemental culture. “We’re friends at the party / I’ll give you my body at home,” she sings on “Homegirl,” one of the best, most poignant, and even painful songs on the record.
The tension between friendship and sexuality is an ever-present theme on her album, as she seeks to navigate the fraught world of queer love before even turning 21. While things are arguably better than they’ve ever been for queer people in America, there’s still no legal protection for these relationships in many areas, and a cultural stigma of homophobia is strong no matter how many “Love Is Love” slogans may sticker the Prius-driving elite of coastal, liberal cities. That’s where songs like “Do You Want To See Me Cry?” and “Prophet” work as buffers, functioning to render unrequited love and desire as universal experiences, even when they’re told from a decidedly queer perspective.
As the first artist on Ronson’s imprint, Straus isn’t just co-signed by one of the most influential and respected pop songwriters and producers in the game, she’s also been afforded a certain amount of independence that young pop stars so rarely get. Cheap Queen is markedly less commercial and radio-friendly and, it should be noted, not relying on the numbers of her debut single, “1950,” which currently hovers close to 300 million streams on Spotify. Instead of chasing status or those numbers, Cheap Queen is more concerned with true songwriter moments, even incorporating the 2010s songwriting darling Tobias Jesso Jr. on “Isabel’s Moment” as the sole feature on the 13-track album.
Debuting an earlier single “Hit The Back” by dubbing it “the anthem for bottoms everywhere,” and evoking the culture of drag both in the album title and her full-faced makeup for the cover, Straus brings a cohesiveness to her representation, making no distinction between queer men and women, or gender at all, and personally identifies as genderqueer. On slower, more somber ballads like “Ain’t Together” and the album lead-off, “Tough On Myself,” Straus explores the in-between places in relationships, the not quite commitment and not quite casual situation that so many members of the younger generations are more than familiar with.
She tends to shine the most when exploring these liminal spaces, giving voice to feelings and situations that have previously been unexplored in pop, or if they have, without the depth that Straus brings to her songwriting. And while nothing here scales the same heights of accessibility that “1950” reached, and most of it trends toward breakups or painful themes of love gone wrong, the album stands as a statement of purpose from an artist whose personal openness is still a landmark in a slowly changing industry.
As much as icons like Lady Gaga may declare tacit support for those who were “Born This Way,” on Cheap Queen Straus feels no need to separate herself from the pack. She was born this way — and that’s exactly what makes her music so singular and so resonant. Whatever success her debut single may have afforded, on this initial full-length Straus has carefully and precisely asserted herself as not just an album artist, but a career artist. However dreamy her come up might’ve been, King Princess is still in the process of beginning — check in with her in 2050 for a real update.
Cheap Queen is out now via Zelig Recordings/Columbia Records. Get it here.