The track and lyrics largely received critical acclaim from international media, with widespread praise of both production and message. The eventual commercial success of "Royals" exceeded most expectations: occupying the United States Billboard Hot 100 chart's top spot for nine consecutive weeks, with Lorde the first New Zealander solo act to top that chart. In the US, the single has been certified six-times platinum by RIAA and has topped mainstream charts in New Zealand, Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom – plus reaching the top five in Australia and Switzerland.
A photograph of baseball player George Brett(pictured in 2009) inspired Lorde to write "Royals".
From the age of 14, Lorde worked with Universal to develop her sound and artistic vision. She was signed to Universal by Maclachlan when she was 13, and was initially put together with a succession of different songwriters in attempt to develop her own music, but without success. Maclachlan told HitQuarters: "Fundamentally I think she understood that she was going to write her own music but would need someone to help with the production side of it."  Lorde began writing songs on guitar as a teenager Lorde was eventually paired with writer and producer Joel Little and this working relationship clicked almost immediately. The Love Club EP was self-released by Lorde in November 2012, in the form of a complimentary SoundCloud set.
Lorde had thought of writing a song about the luxury of pop musicians after seeing an image in the July 1976 edition of National Geographic showing Kansas City Royals player George Brett signing baseballs, with his team's name emblazoned across his shirt – Lorde recalled during a September 3, 2013 VH1 interview, "It was just that word. It's really cool." More broadly, historic aristocrats were also inspirational, as she explained during that same interview.
She wrote the lyrics to "Royals" in July 2012, at her house in only half an hour.
She was listening to a lot of hip hop-influenced music, especially Lana Del Rey, while writing. Lorde has mentioned that "all those references to expensive alcohol, beautiful clothes and beautiful cars – I was thinking, ‘This is so opulent, but it’s also bullshit.'" Later, Lorde went to show the lyrics to Joel Little, her producer at his Golden Age Studios – he remarked "Yeah, this is cool". Within a week, "Royals" and two other songs were produced there, for The Love Club EP.
"Royals" is an art pop,minimal pop, and electropop, song. Written in the key of G major, it has a moderate tempo of 85 beats per minute. Or rather D Mixolydian, with the chord progression I-bVII-IV (D – C – G) mostly throughout the song. The track has a similar rhythm to a snap song, with its instrumentation of finger snaps and bass. The lyrics are described as turning "the aspirationalism of hip-hop culture on its head." The song concerns the luxury and lifestyle of pop artists. The first verse focuses on her early life and sorrow over pop growing up in Auckland. The concept is introduced in the pre-chorus.
"Royals" received acclaim from music critics. Digital Spy gave the song five out of five stars praising the song saying it has an "addictive hook that thrives on its simplicity" continuing to comment saying "Lorde's success is here to stay." Other reactions were mixed, with The Singles Jukebox having ratings ranging from a three to an eight out of ten. Duncan Greive of The Guardian gave the song positive reviews placing emphasis on Lorde's vocal performance and the song's lyrical content. He wrote, "The production is spare and haunting, and the vocals somehow simultaneously vulnerable and imperious, but it’s Royals’ words which have propelled its ascent to the top of the UK and US charts", continuing to praise the songs "direct response" to excess and wealth.
"Royals" was recognized as one of the best songs of 2013 by numerous media outlets. Spin listed it at number 15 on its list of 50 best songs of the year, commenting that "true artpop rarely announces itself as such".Time's writer Douglas Wolk wrote "It’s a pointed rejection of the aspirations that have been foisted on the victims of capitalism", placing "Royals" at number 10 on his list of top 10 songs of 2013. Meanwhile, it was ranked as the best song of the year by Consequence of Sound and the second best song of the year by Rolling Stone. On December 18, 2013, Billboard editors Jason Lipshutz, Erika Ramirez and Brad Wete named "Royals" the third best song of the year.Time magazine placed it at number 20 on its 2013 best songs list.
In early October 2013, Feministing blogger Verónica Bayetti Flores published a mixed review of "Royals", in which she claimed that the song's lyrics were racist. She wrote that, "In fact, it is deeply racist, because we all know who she's thinking when we're talking gold teeth, Cristal and Maybachs." Within a few days, The Civilian parodied the controversy by way of farcical extension to the Pure Heroine album overall. A week after Flores' blog post, CNN's report stated that Universal Music New Zealand had said that Lorde had "no comment in response to the criticism," and Time trailed the matter in entertainment news. Prompted by this coverage and the inflated media storm, Flores responded with a longer explanation and quoted Lorde as saying that she was specifically pointing out hip-hop in the song. Nevertheless, numerous critics of Flores' argument, particularly from outside the US, have suggested that her criticism of the song is itself racist and ethnocentric, as Flores completely fails to acknowledge that Lorde is a New Zealander who wrote the song in a very different cultural context.
At this peak in commentary, Aziza Jackson from The Washington Times defended the song by saying "Both Lorde and I are the spawns of a culture rigged with consumerism and class, not race, a world where money is green and greed is good. Today's hip-hop and pop lyrics are laced with the promotion of shiny yet empty lives and skin that is not black or white, but green." Before the end of October, two weeks later, World Socialist Web Site's music and culture critic, Ed Hightower appraised "Royals" in respect to the controversy, dismissing Flores's accusation of racism: "It is entirely to Lorde's credit that flunkies of Flores' caliber attack her work. One hopes that Lorde's development as an artist will include taking on even more challenging subject matter while retaining her integrity and deepening and expanding her sensitivities. Pure Heroine is a strong start."
Lorde became the youngest solo artist to achieve a Billboard Hot 100 number-one single with "Royals" since Tiffany(pictured in 2003) with her hit "I Think We're Alone Now" (1987).
"Royals" debuted at number 1 on the New Zealand Top 40 on 15 March 2013 and remained in the top position for three weeks. In Australia, "Royals" was released simultaneously with "The Love Club" and was classified as a single for charting purposes and spent two weeks at its peak position of number two on the ARIA Singles Chart; sales of tracks on the album counted toward the EP, and therefore could not chart separately. It has been certified six-times Platinum by the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) for shipping 420,000 units.
In August 2013, Lorde became the first solo female artist to top the Billboard Alternative Songs chart in the United States since Tracy Bonham in 1996. The song also holds the record for longest reign by a woman atop the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, surpassing Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know," which spent five weeks at number one. Following the release of "Royals" in the United States in June 2013, 85,000 copies were sold during a single week in July. In a subsequent interview, Lorde stated, "I had a sneaking suspicion that it might do all right."
On the week dated 2 October 2013 (2013-10-02), the song rose to number-one on the Billboard Hot 100, giving Lorde her first number one. At sixteen, she is the youngest artist to reach #1 since Tiffany did with "I Think We're Alone Now" on November 14, 1987. With "Royals", Lorde is the first New Zealand act to have achieved a Billboard Hot 100 number one as lead artist. The song became a crossover hit, receiving significant airplay on triple A, modern rock, adult contemporary, rhythmic contemporary, urban contemporary and contemporary hit radio in the US, and eventually topped the US Hot 100 chart in October 2013. The track spent a total of nine weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the second longest run that year. It became the fifth best-selling song in the US with 4,415,000 downloads sold in 2013, and was the top selling song of the year by a female artist. As of April 2014, the song has sold 5,467,000 digital copies in the US.
The song debuted at number three on the Irish Charts on October 3, 2013, before climbing to number one the following week. On the week dated October 9, 2013, the song retained its number one spot, selling a further 309,000 copies. On 28 October "Royals" debuted at number one on the UK Singles Chart; in doing so, Lorde became the youngest solo artist to score a UK number one single since Billie Piper's 1998 song "Because We Want To."
The official video for "Royals" was directed by Joel Kefali and released on Lorde's official YouTube channel on 12 May 2013 with a US version released on 18 June 2013 on her VEVO account. In line with the subject of the song, the video for "Royals" mostly consists of normal teenagers doing unexceptional things in slow motion. The actors in the music video are Lorde's schoolmates. In the international version, with the exception of one extended frame of Lorde singing, Lorde herself rarely appears in the video. On her lack of appearance in the video, Lorde said, "The music video for me was about creating a piece of art and I wanted it to feel cinematic and like it's something you can immerse yourself in. Having me in it didn't feel like something that was necessary to create that world. So I'm just in it for just a little bit. I think it works well." The US version of the song uses the same clips as the international; however, it intersperses more clips of Lorde singing. It also omits scenes from the beginning and the end, which made reference to two of Lorde's other songs. This cut the running time from 4:02 to 3:21. The US version also received 100 million views meaning this video is now certified. It won best music video at the 2013 New Zealand Music Awards.
For the Japanese release of Pure Heroine in February 2014, Lorde collaborated with Japanese illustrator and musician Akiakane to create an animated music video for "Royals."
"Royals" is the main song of a Samsung commercial advertising their Samsung Galaxy Note 3 cell phone. The commercial presents Argentinian footballer Lionel Messi, and the song is performed by a children's choir. The song was used, in a more classical rendition with strings, in a ballroom scene in episode 18 of the TV series Reign.
On 1 March 2014, singer Bruce Springsteen opened his Auckland concert of his High Hopes Tour with an acoustic performance of "Royals". In 2013, Pixie Lott covered this song in her "Live at the Pool" session. The recording was made available as part of her Nasty EP and digitally released on 9 March 2014.
The recording was covered during the semi-finals of the The Voice 2014 by contestant Sophie May Williams. The episode aired live on BBC One in the United Kingdom on 29 March 2014.