After spending days listening to an album in nearly every context of your life, you either get completely sick of it or you start to mentally play it in the back of your mind at all times. In my case, after listening to King Princess’ debut album Cheap Queen on the bus to and from the city, at work, in my bed and between classes, I now crave it. Cheap Queen is a near-perfect pop album, a forceful debut full of heartbroken odes and complex narrations of queer love in 2019. In other words, it’s made to be craved.
“Nobody told me / To sit down and shut up / And take this shit slowly,” Straus sings on the opening track, “Tough on Myself.” Here, the 20-year-old ruminates on her fame, which she gained suddenly last year, when she released “1950” and Harry Styles tweeted a lyric from the song. In the hit song, Straus greeted the world with an announcement that made her instantly relatable — the opening lyrics, “I hate it when dudes try to chase me.” The song, which is an homage to the lesbian romance novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, tells the story of Straus and a female lover. It uses “playing 1950” as a metaphor for unrequited love and how the heteronormative public eye can still render queer love invisible even in the 2000s.
The extremely catchy track caught the attention of listeners not only because of Straus’ sultry-smooth voice, but also because its message cemented her as an up-and-coming queer pop icon. Straus was soon going on tour and facing pressure to cultivate a public persona and a public love life. Cheap Queen, consequently, is a journal of the last year and a half of her life, and especially of the trajectory of her relationship with her now ex-girlfriend.
The album hits its stride in the fourth track “Ain’t Together,” in which Straus sings about a relationship stuck in limbo. The song begins with a warm, simple guitar progression that feels effortless and inviting, like the opening of “Polyester Bride” on Liz Phair’s self-produced 1991 Girly-Sound tapes. Straus calls out the expectation to be “chill” and not label her feelings as anything serious or amounting to a desire to be exclusive, despite the fact that she and her partner regularly affirm their love for one another.
“We say, ‘I love you,’ but we ain’t together / Do you think labels make it taste much better?” she asks, then admits: “Being chill, being chill with you / Oh, it kills, I ain’t chill at all.” This song is the most honest assessment of young people and their approach to relationships that I’ve heard in awhile. It gets at the confusion and difficulties of the dominant notion that you have to be “chill,” and that being “chill” means you have to shy away from commitment. At the same time, the song captures the excitement and bewilderment of knowing that you have something real with someone.
The record is a string of catchy singles with interesting, sometimes super short interludes to fill the spaces between. Its only fault may be that despite Straus calling it a “full heartbreak album,” we never really get the full vocal pain and catharsis that such a label would suggest. Straus’ singing voice is so polished, and her musical skills so adept (she did, after all, practically grow up in her father’s recording studio), that at times it’s hard to feel the heartbreak. I want the scream that Straus reaches on her single, “Talia,” for instance, or just some kind of loss of control. But I guess as they say, you’ve got to show you can follow the rules before you fully break free of them. This record shows that Straus is an extraordinarily talented songwriter who can definitely follow the musical rules, but I’m excited to see what happens when she takes a few more risks. Cheap Queen certainly promises an exciting future for King Princess. It also leaves you craving more.
Anna Grace Lee is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.