Watching Mikaela Straus’s November 24 debut on Saturday Night Live felt like observing a symbolic coming-of-age in real time. The singer-songwriter, better known by her gender-paradoxical pseudonym King Princess, took to the hallowed stage for a dichotomous two-song performance. Armed with a guitar held in place by an eponymously branded strap, giving her the vibe of a got-stoned-before-homecoming queen, Straus’s standing rendition of the lowkey breakout single “1950” was made haunting by a smokey haze looming over the space. In contrast, her delivery of the sensuous “Hit the Back” was bouncy, unrestrained, confident; she hopped and sashayed across the dance floor, swinging her hips side-to-side as she flirted with her titular lover: “A dirty girl with lots of passion / Staring at my fingers while I talk to you.”
The two tracks, though released just a little over a year apart, reflect two distinct moments at the outset of King Princess’s burgeoning career. With dreamy strumming, 808 drums, and an anthemic chorus revealing coded feelings (“So I'll wait for you, I'll pray / I will keep on waiting for your love”), the former, “1950,” which was released in 2018, jettisoned the wavy-haired then-teen to viral status. Fans were hooked; so was One Direction alum Harry Styles, who tweeted lyrics from the song. When it came time to release her first EP, Make My Bed, King Princess had already signed to Mark Ronson’s fledgling label Zelig Recordings.
Building on the sparse language put forth by “1950“ came “Hit the Back,” first released in October 2019 as the lead single of a five-song teaser by the same name. It begins with a minimal piano introduction dusted with Straus’s soulful vocals that tease: “I need you to search my clothing / Pat me down and feel the molding.” But then, much like King Princess herself, it quickly transforms, exploding into a lusty dance-floor bop with all the groove of a Boney M backup dancer. According to Straus, it was written to be “the anthem for bottoms everywhere,” and therefore does not shy away from sex, with Straus begging the question on the cataclysmic refrain: “And ain't I the best you had?” Re-released later that same month on King Princess’s debut full-length Cheap Queen, “Hit the Back,” with its variations in tempo and punchy refrain, is emblematic of the album: It captures an image of youth — bold, volatile, always a little horny — and all the highs and lows therein.
On Cheap Queen, King Princess captures the dips and peaks of young adulthood both sonically and lyrically, arranging the 13 tracks as a loose narrative chronicling the process of coping with a breakup — Strauss split from former partner Amandla Stenberg in early 2019 — and the complex renegotiation of space that follows. It opens with the synth-heavy morphine drip “Tough on Myself,” which mimics the hazy feelings of a staling love with staccato-spit verses over a slow-crawling melody. It is the sound of a relationship’s funeral procession: “I'm so bad with attention / So my good intentions / Get bad when you hold me.” By “Ain’t Together,” she keeps her cool over acoustic strums, trying to convince her ex, and perhaps herself, that she’s ready to move on: “And bein' chill, bein' chill with you / Oh, it kills, I ain't chill at all, at all.” And yet, she still stays up at night waiting for a text on “Watching My Phone,” one that will likely never come.
But King Princess also offers hope, providing a subtle guide for how to heal the lingering sting of heartache. For starters, try spending time with your friends; on the album’s swaggering title track, “Cheap Queen,” Straus finds more time to do the “same shit I’ve always liked,” like “smoking and movies and homies who bring me wine.” The title itself is a cheeky ode to community, nodding to a “drag term for someone who is resourceful, who makes something out of nothing,” she told Vulture. A genderqueer lesbian, Straus is casual about approaching identity politics in her work. She regularly employs the feminine pronoun in her lyrics; she dresses up as a pageant contestant and a football player in the music videos for “Cheap Queen” and “Prophet” respectively, and holds hands with a girl while rocking a drawn-on mustache in the visuals for “1950.”
That nonchalance is precisely what makes King Princess's work so profound for an emerging generation of LGBTQ+ people, many of whom are undoubtedly looking for themselves in today's musical landscape. Pop music builds pop culture, and seeing King Princess own her identity bolsters the notion that being queer is simply part of being. Perhaps it is even "a gift when it comes to art," as she told Out.
In the year-plus since the release of “1950” — after having her heart smashed, then transforming that hurt into certified bops with help from some of the best in the business — King Princess has come into her own, offering up her debut album as a veritable artistic statement, a blueprint for what's to come. As her Saturday Night Live debut proves, King Princess is more than just a one-hit viral sensation, but a burgeoning queer icon with all the potential of a swaggering superstar.
Crown the new king of pop — she’s a Cheap Queen.
Find all of MTV News's 2019 Albums of the Year right here.