King Princess — the songwriter Mikaela Straus, now 20 — launched her recording career early last year with “1950,” a streaming hit that begins with a blunt statement about her sexual orientation: “I hate it when dudes try to chase me.” Then it delves into an infatuation — “tell me why my gods look like you” — while imagining the repressed 1950s, when homosexuality was expected to stay closeted.
The music had the same dual perspective, melding current and retro. King Princess is signed to Zelig, the label run by the producer Mark Ronson; she sang on his album, “Late Night Feelings,” and she shares his penchant for blurring past and present. In “1950,” subterranean bass throbs and digitally tweaked drums and backup vocals merge with the vintage warmth of hymnlike piano and reverb-heavy guitar chords, while the song’s structure could have come out of a 1960s pop factory like the Brill Building. King Princess, who describes herself as genderqueer and gay, placed her sexuality upfront — even more so on the songs that would join “1950” on her 2018 EP, “Made My Bed” — and exulted in the enduring power of desire and love.
She carries that approach — candid and forthright while grounded in past generations’ pop — onto her full-length debut album, “Cheap Queen.” She sings about self-doubt and self-confidence, passion and longing, connection and betrayal; barely out of her teens, she’s a young woman sorting things out for herself, and human inconstancy isn’t bound by gender. While King Princess writes about 21st-century romance — one new track is “Watching My Phone” — the music places her songs on a longer timeline, full of ghosts from previous pop eras.
In “Homegirl,” the singer is captivated by a woman who also draws male attention: “We’re friends at the party/I’ll give you my body at home,” she promises. The tune is a waltz, set in King Princess’s huskier lower range; strummed acoustic guitar and simulated vibraphone make the song hover and sway like K.D. Lang looking back to Patsy Cline. In “Prophet,” minor-key electric piano chords, distant chimes and a film-noir backbeat gently push King Princess’s breathy confession: “I can only think about you.”
She reaches back to folk-rock for “You Destroyed My Heart,” which decides, “Now I want somebody good.” And “Ain’t Together” — about an iffy long-distance relationship — echoes late-1960s baroque pop, with a relaxed tempo, backup voices going “doo-doo-doo-doo” and major-to-minor-to-major harmony shifts as King Princess insists, “I can’t let this fall apart.” While the lyric video toys with masculine and feminine roles — football player, cheerleader — the music is all about yearning.
Straus is the daughter of a recording engineer, and she grew up around studio equipment and musicians. Ronson is credited for some postproduction work in two songs, but throughout the album, King Princess is her own producer (with collaborators including the guitarist Nick Long and the engineer Mike Malchicoff) as well as a major part of her studio backup band; she programmed beats and played keyboards, bass, drums and guitar. Most of the songs are midtempo, keyboard-centered ballads, harking back to Fiona Apple (with whom Straus has remade one of Apple’s songs, “I Know”) and perhaps Stevie Wonder, Carole King and the piano-centric moments of the Beatles.
She also knows her way around the hip-hop arsenal of loops and samples. The title song on “Cheap Queen” revolves around sampled movie dialogue with looped keyboard chords and programmed drums as King Princess considers her ascending career and its new ethical quandaries: “Since everyone wants me it’s harder to be myself,” she sings.
That self is a work in progress, wrestling with closeness and independence, trust and safety, acoustic realism and digital fabrications. “I’m still trying to draw all the lines through my friends and my lovers/It ain’t clear how we feel when we spend all this time with each other,” she muses in “Isabel’s Moment,” which leaves her wondering, “Is it how it’s going to be?” For the album, King Princess finds a closing benediction: “If you think it’s love, it is.” But it’s clear she knows how much things can change.