On her earliest EPs under the name Sudan Archives—2017’s Sink and 2018’s self-titled—Brittney Parks was equal parts skilled instrumentalist and songwriter, Afro-futuristic pop star and stylistic outlier: a Black woman who fused her lifelong training on the violin with hip-hop beats, electronically looped sounds and African music influences bolstered by her ethnomusicology studies in college.
Parks’ first full-length, 2019’s Athena, expanded on that sound, pairing Parks with a handful of producers who surrounded her songs with lush and psychedelic vibes. Athena was different but not too different, and more importantly, it painted Parks as an artist with the vision and versatility to do, basically, whatever she wants.
Which brings us to Natural Brown Prom Queen, the third Sudan Archives full-length and, at 18 tracks long, an undeniable “statement album” from an artist with plenty to say. NBPQ, as we’ll call it, is a wild ride through Parks’ restless mind, bouncing around among styles like a wide-eyed kid on their first visit to a sweet playground in the wealthy part of town. Sometimes, the album switches styles so quickly, you can practically hear Parks tiring of one toy, dropping it and moving on to the next one that catches her eye. This is not necessarily a bad thing; NBPQ is as thrilling as it is, at times, jarring.
Take, for example, the album’s opening five tracks: The first minute or so of “Home Maker” sounds like a soulful DJ Shadow instrumental. Then, the song settles into its main disco-funk groove, with a surprise playground-chant bridge popping in near the end. Lyrically, Parks introduces a recurring theme of the album—her own insecurity:
I cry when I’m alone
All these people don’t know
That I deal with all of these doubts
They get out once a while
Next, “NBPQ (Topless)” runs through a rubbery bouzouki riff, a speedy club-banger beat, a sumptuous Beach Boys-style interlude and a drowsy coda where Parks finally brings her violin to the front of the arrangement.
We are nine minutes in.
From there, Parks explores luxurious R&B (“Ciara”), global psychedelia (“Selfish Soul”) and expansive techno-pop (“Loyal (EDD)”) before unveiling “OMG BRITT”—the first (surely?) trap song to feature the plinky-plunky sound of the zither. Here, Parks’ insecurity has given way to bravado (and rightfully so):
They gone have a fit when they hear this shit
Don’t need no man to pay my rent
They gone get so sick
Herein lies the tremendous appeal of Sudan Archives: Like you and me and everyone we know, Parks contains multitudes. She is unsure of herself one minute and a badass shit-talker the next. She is a woman of the world, equipped to conquer every corner of it through her music, and she also just wants to sit at home, smoke weed and watch Sailor Moon. She inserts a sprightly violin passage into the middle of “ChevyS10,” a bass-forward booty call based in an old crush’s pickup truck. She can build a song like “FLUE” around an stunningly gorgeous string section, then unleash the 808s and AutoTune in “Freakalizer” and shout out her hometown of Cincinnati in “#513,” crediting the Midwestern river city for grounding her even as she soars: “I don’t really wanna follow tricky trendy little things,” she sings as a typically weird beat wheezes and wobbles behind her.
If there’s one thing Natural Brown Prom Queen makes plain, it’s that Brittney Parks and Sudan Archives is not a follower. She will set the trends; whether the world follows her remains to be seen.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.