The Week In Pop

All Hail King Princess

King Princess really is royalty of a sort. Mikaela Mullaney Straus, the 20-year-old upstart who’ll release her debut album Cheap Queen tomorrow, is the daughter of Oliver H. Straus Jr., owner of Brooklyn’s Mission Sound Recording. Like many artists who find their way to fame before exiting their teenage years, she was born into the music industry, benefitting from both the hands-on experience and the networking power that comes from having a parent in the biz.

This is not a neg, just a fact. Resent Straus’ privilege if you wish, but it’s yielded a pretty good pop album. Growing up in a recording studio has clearly helped her become a skilled singer, songwriter, and producer. Working closely with producer Mike Malchicoff, Straus boasts a compelling perspective, a distinct musical vision, and, most importantly, a stack of well-crafted singles that sound like a million bucks. Misnomered though it may be, Cheap Queen is one of the best pop debut albums of 2019.

With last year’s Make My Bed EP, King Princess established herself as a star in the making. The minor alternative radio hit “1950” found her emoting over soulfully moody piano chords and reverb-laden guitar stabs, “I hate it when dudes try to chase me, but I love it when you try to save me, ’cause I’m just a lady,” with a drawn-on mustache. In the video for “Talia,” another retro-tinted adult contemporary track with a subtle electronic fringe, she got cozy with a sex doll. By the time she followed up the EP with a crisp and euphoric standalone single called “Pussy Is God,” Straus had established her aesthetic: well-executed soft rock and MOR pop paired with imagery that puts a queer bent on the basic tropes of pop stardom.

That mode of operation has continued into 2019. Musically, she continues to unleash an appealing variety of lifestyle-pop tracks, the sort of slick, eclectic, vaguely retro records you’d expect from an artist signed to fellow talented cool rich kid Mark Ronson’s Columbia imprint Zelig Recordings. Speaking of Ronson, the King Princess collab “Pieces Of Us” has surpassed offerings from Camila Cabello, Lykke Li, and even Angel Olsen to become my favorite song from Ronson’s great breakup album Late Night Feelings. Over fizzy, bass-popping production accented with finger snaps and light electronic touches, Straus turns her casually commanding vocal presence loose on some of the year’s finest hooks. She never sounds as devastated as the subject matter implies, but the whole production is so impeccable that it doesn’t matter.

Although no single from her own album makes me feel quite so ecstatic, every one has been a winner. On the title track she sings, “I’m getting too cocky, since everyone wants me it’s harder to be myself.” But Cheap Queen presents an artist in full control of her aesthetic, able to bend it in various directions without losing her sense of self. For that song, she wades past her music’s electronic fringe into full-on synth-pop. The softly soulful “Ain’t Together,” meanwhile, leans into the more organic side of her sound. (“We say ‘I love you,’ but we ain’t together,” Straus sings. “Do you think labels make it taste much better?”) “Hit The Back” begins as a jazzy nightclub ballad but soon blooms into disco reverie, while “Prophet” is a smoky trip-hop swoon.

The rest of the album mostly fills in the space between those sounds. Tobias Jesso shows up to duet on the piano ballad “Isabel’s Moment,” and Father John Misty can be heard drumming on one track (not sure which), meaning Straus is one Natalie Prass away from checking all the boxes from my 2015 thinkpiece about the rise of ’70s-style singer-songwriters. This being a Ronson-affiliated operation, you won’t be surprised to learn the Dap-Kings appear as well. Just when opener “Tough On Myself” starts to sound like scratchy old vinyl, the distinctly digital “Useless Phrases” comes along.

Straus’ album, then, is more conservative than radical — a stylish modern update on classic sounds. Whatever subversive qualities she projects can be so subtle that you don’t really pick up on them without visual accompaniment. Her videos and promo imagery, though, have continued to build out the King Princess iconography in fun ways, accenting her distinctively tasteful sound with the zany and surreal. Straus dressed up as a cheerleader for the “Ain’t Together” visual and a football player (and a construction worker, and a sheet cake) in the “Prophet” video. For “Cheap Queen,” she was miniaturized on a giant couch watching TV programming full of gender non-conforming characters, many of them portrayed by her. The cover art depicts her in androgynous makeup, looking like an entirely different person.

I’d be interested to hear what would happen if Straus let more of this colorful personality into her songs, but Cheap Queen proves she doesn’t need that sort of flair to make worthwhile music. If her videos are full of outrageous costumes, her album’s down-to-earth sounds play more like daily wardrobe changes. She’s not the first artist whose persona is far more transgressive than her music — shock-rockers like KISS and Alice Cooper come to mind, as do Culture Club — but her approach feels especially relevant now, at a time when being a pop star is more dependent than ever on personal branding. She understands what it takes to become music royalty at the dawn of the ’20s, and if she keeps kicking out albums this accomplished, she’ll deserve some kind of crown.

CREDIT: Chris Scheurich

CHART WATCH

The #1 album in America belongs to YoungBoy Never Broke Again. The perpetually-in-trouble rapper tops the Billboard 200 for the first time with AI YoungBoy 2, which tallied 110,000 equivalent album units but just 3,000 in sales. After Post Malone at #2, Summer Walker at #3, and DaBaby at #4 comes a #5 debut for Lil Tjay’s True 2 Myself via 45,000 units/1,000 sales. Taylor Swift is at #6, followed by one more top 10 debut from a rapper: Wale’s Wow… That’s Crazy at #7 with 38,000 units/5,000 sales. Billie Eilish, Chris Brown, and Young Thug round out the top 10.

Over on the Hot 100, Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” reclaims the #1 spot for a seventh nonconsecutive week after being dethroned for a week by Travis Scott’s “Highest In The Room.” Per Billboard, this ties “Truth Hurts” with Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX’s “Fancy” as the longest-running #1 hit by a female rapper. Recent top 10 mainstays “Señorita,” “Someone You Loved,” “Circles,” and “No Guidance” are at #2 through #5, followed by the Travis Scott track at #6.

After “Ran$om,” “Bad Guy,” and “Panini” at #7, #8, and #9 comes the week’s only new top 10 entry, which brings this chart update full circle. After debuting at #11 last week, Juice WRLD and YoungBoy Never Broke Again’s “Bandit” is up to #10 this week. It’s Juice’s second top 10 hit following last year’s “Lucid Dreams” and the first top 10 hit for YoungBoy.

POP FIVE

Selena Gomez – “Lose Me To Love You” & “Look At Her Now”
The rare double Selena! Re: “Lose You To Love Me,” that chorus and the implied tabloid drama are enough to ensure a hit. I expect it to win me over like “Wolves” eventually did. No need for such persuasion re: “Look At Her Now,” which is exactly the sort of crisp, lithe, minimal pop song I want from the artist behind “Hands To Myself” and “Bad Liar.” A chorus built from wordless sampled syllables is not ideal — and it continues Gomez and Demi Lovato’s intertwined trajectories — but the clubby R&B vibe is real nice.


Kesha – “Raising Hell” (Feat. Big Freedia)
This is no masterpiece, but it’s a pretty good mix of Kesha’s old-school party-trash sound and the more organic, soulful side she showed on Rainbow, and the video elevates it significantly.

Major Lazer & Khalid – “Trigger”
Major Lazer and Khalid are both so talented, and yet. “Trigger” is supposed to be a sad song, but I’m mostly sad about how boring it is.

Louis Tomlinson – “We Made It”
So much for Louis Tomlinson going Britpop! I guess there’s a whiff of “Wonderwall” in this, and I guess I should have seen it coming, but I was hoping dude was ready to properly rock ‘n’ roll.

Victoria Monét – “Ass Like That”
Here comes the big push for Ariana Grande’s close collaborator and “Monopoly” duet partner. I won’t mind this push at all if Monét is gonna release subtly graceful R&B bangers like this.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • In his new memoir Elton John calls Madonna “ungracious and nasty” over her criticism of Lady Gaga. [Out]
  • Kacey Musgraves set the Guinness World Record for … the Largest Display of Coloring Pages. [Instagram]
  • Someone in the ACL crowd stole Billie Eilish’s ring. While she didn’t seem to care too much (“guess that’s my fault — keeeep that shit”) her fans started fighting on social media about the incident, leading the pop star to tell them to be nicer to each other. [Billboard]
  • Justin Timberlake shared a photo from the studio with Haim. [Instagram]
  • “Old Town Road’ is the fastest song (and second country single) in history to be certified diamond by the RIAA. [Billboard]
  • Dua Lipa teased a new song, “Don’t Start Now,” out 11/1. [YouTube]
  • Nicki Minaj reportedly got married. [E!]
  • In a candid Instagram post T-Pain announced he was cancelling his tour due to low ticket sales. [Complex]
  • Post Malone leads the AMA nominations with seven. [THR]
  • Offset will host two gaming shows for the Twitch competitor Caffeine. [Rolling Stone]
  • Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, and Chris Stapleton with P!nk will be among the performers at the 2019 CMA Awards. [Taste Of Country]
  • Noah Cyrus launched an apparel collection for mental health awareness. [Crystal Campaign]
  • Camila Cabello, Taylor Swift, Halsey, Billie Eilish, Jonas Brothers, and Lizzo were among the performers at the 7th annual We Can Survive benefit for the American Cancer Society. [Just Jared]
  • Shawn Mendes met a quokka. [Instagram]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME