King Princess, the moniker of vintage-pop songwriter and queer hero Mikaela Straus, first entered into the public eye with the charming, swooning “1950,” a revisionist history indebted to the hidden yearning between the two female lovers of the 1952 novel The Price Of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, later adapted into the 2015 movie Carol. The song, like the novel and film it homages, builds a flame out of smoldered glances and subtext, an anthem for a fledgling generation of queer folks whose private lives are still somehow very much relegated to intimate, dark corners.
But those three minutes of euphoria in “1950” don’t get to the next part: What do you do when that longing burns out? King Princess’ debut album Cheap Queen, which Straus joked on Twitter, is “an iconic lesbian breakup album,” is one that’s, at least in part, inspired by the dissolution of her relationship with actor Amandla Stenberg.
When asked about her love life in a Vanity Fair Q&A, her response took a tone of self-reflection: “The hardest part of juggling a relationship is allowing yourself to miss someone, and to know that missing someone is healthy,” she said. It’s a response befitting someone who’s wisened up, learning day by day that love, by necessity, can’t be intensely all-consuming all the time. When you love hard and fast, and are forced to learn to pare it down, it’s tough not to subsume yourself into the joyful throes of new love.
Cheap Queen is more melancholy than “1950,” more introspective than her ode to “Talia,” less ebullient than the assured bedroom-romping funk of follow-up single “Pussy Is God,” the latter of which was co-written with Stenberg. Cheap Queen is also more vulnerable: As Straus figures out the contours of her heartbreak and the patina it takes on, the longer it lingers out in the open.
There are plenty of A-list collaborators—drums courtesy of Father John Misty, a co-write by the xx’s Romy Madley Croft, harmonies with Tobias Jesso, Jr.—but they mostly play as bit characters in the two-person melodrama that takes place here. The featured players add space to the already-cavernous sound; sonically, it brings to mind Tidal, her past collaborator Fiona Apple’s own debut, which featured spartan, piano-driven songs of the self colored in with modernist touches of trip-hop and rap.
Much of Cheap Queen plays out as a lovely, longing suite of dimly-lit torch songs played out in the restless hours—Straus is stoned, alone and checking her phone to ward off the ghost of solitude. “Your clothes are still in my drawers / Like you’re haunting my home,” she bemoans on “Isabel’s Moment,” her unvarnished, piano-driven collaboration with Jesso. Elsewhere, like on the warm, acoustic waltz “Homegirl,” King Princess turns the radical queerness of her initial hit on its head as she’s forced to keep her relationship discreet even now, sighing to her partner that “you still look at me like him.” “Do you think labels make it taste much better?” she wonders out loud on “Ain’t Together” as she figures out how much of her intensity she should confide.
Specters, real and imagined, of past lovers, current lovers and the people watching them, loom large over Cheap Queen. It’s a feeling best encapsulated on the Tidal-esque “Prophet”: “I can only think about you / And what it’s like to walk around you / And why they like to talk about you.”
There’s bile here, too, a shade of resentment that never really quite seemed to puncture King Princess’ brand of distanced, swaggered cool. “I’m a better fag, and you’re an amateur,” she sneers on “You Destroyed My Heart,” drawing out the slur like an extended drag of a cigarette. It’s boundary-pushing and undeniably, unapologetically queer, but in a way that punches down, a quip made in anger—except this one’s recorded and uploaded to stream in perpetuity.
Aside from this moment, Cheap Queen largely captures Straus in the process of blooming with a little help from her friends as she figures out how to exist amid a period of heartbreak. “I’m going out too much, I’m talking about myself too much,” she confesses on the title track—an ode to the “homies” who bring her cheap wine and camaraderie.
“I feel better with my heart out,” she sways on “Do You Wanna See Me Crying?,” one of the three sparsely-sketched interludes on Cheap Queen that contain some of her most direct songwriting. All this is to say: It’s easy to wisecrack or get consumed whole by the touch of another, but ultimately, amid the rubble of mending her heart, King Princess has figured out how to love intensely without losing herself in the process.