Album Review: Sudan Archives – Natural Brown Prom Queen

[Stones Throw; 2022]

2019 seems like an eternity ago, but that was the last time LA-via-Cincinatti artist Brittney Parks, aka Sudan Archives, released a project via her debut album Athena. The remarkable full length came after a string of ear-pleasing EPs released over the preceding years, all of which peeled more layers off of Parks and found her pushing the boundaries of genre to the brink.

Athena was a bold first step for Parks, but it was merely the start of something much grander. Fully taking advantage of her abilities, Parks delivers an astounding return with Natural Brown Prom Queen. Clocking in close to an hour, Prom Queen is the musical odyssey of Brittney Parks that audiences needed; a piercing, explicit sophomore record that doesn’t just skim the surface, it completely plunges us deep into the world of Sudan Archives.

Parks is a multi-instrumentalist, fluent in violin and mandolin, but additionally a masterful singer, rapper, and producer. Her exact sound wanders between light comparisons from Janelle Monáe to Beyoncé – though these were more apt comparisons for Athena, not so much for Prom Queen. Parks revealed that Prom Queen is an exposure of her personal life, the side of her that only family and loved ones were privy to previously. It delivers a boldly vivid answer to the question ‘who is Brittney Parks?’

She’s anything but average, a notion she revels in on the manic title track “NBPQ (Topless)”. Repeatedly changing directions, Parks explores her beginnings in the music industry, recalling the setbacks, but also her dreams and motivations all within the span of a minute. “So, we set her up in a pop duo / Wit her twin sister, Catherine Parks / And it really didn’t even work out like that / Got kicked out ‘cause she laid on her back,” she summarises.

Lyrically, this is Parks’ most personal work, but the production and structure of her songs have evolved beyond compare. The ambition of a song like “NBPQ” illustrates Parks’ mindset, keen to offer up these trinkets of her personality. The track contains several micro-pivots within its four minutes, but never feels awkward or misplaced. She feverishly misdirects the audience throughout, leading to a faux-conclusion regarding fame and fortune, only to end up as a gender anthem by way of the line “I just wanna have my titties out, titties out.”

Through mixing of memories and narrative Parks crafts a surreal timeline, one that paves the way for some of her most dynamic songwriting to date. The plush popper “Selfish Soul” digs into gender and race hair conformity and the backlash a woman feels for cutting her hair shorter. “Okay, one time if I grow it long / Am I good enough, am I good enough?” she laments, but the goal of “Selfish Soul” isn’t to conform, but rather promote the independent mindset, and live however you want, or as she puts it: “Time to feed my selfish soul.”

These concepts aren’t new, women been taking ownership of their appearance for a long time, but with the rise of gender politics and irate internet commenters the subject has resurfaced. What makes Parks’ convictions so compelling is how empathetic they are. Anyone can replenish themselves with “Selfish Soul” and hopefully exude some of the confidence that Parks showcases. While gender has a paramount presence on Prom Queen it’s not in an antagonistic way; Parks wants to be free, just like everyone else, from persecution and control.

These are feelings any human being can relate to. She relents her role as a partner on the album’s opening cut “Home Maker”. Here, in an almost tongue-in-cheek fashion, she opens up about the responsibilities of the woman in a relationship, and supplies reasons to keep her partner’s growing infidelity at bay. “Home Maker” feels like a weight from her shoulders has been relived, revealing clarity about her position and strength: “I got something special, bring it to my plate / I got big plans for this home I made / And you couldn’t handle me anyway.”

Elsewhere, “FLUE” demonstrates the power of Sudan Archives’ full potential with a violin intro that leads to one of the album’s best hybrid tracks, offering R&B, baroque pop, and electronica. She creates a whirlwind of melodious wonderment that segues perfectly into the chest-puffing “TDLY (Homegrown Land)”.

At the heart of Natural Brown Prom Queen is the pairing of “OMG BRITT” and “ChevyS10”. On the former, she stomps her way through a radio-ready trapper, primed for Cardi B comparisons. “Chevys10” is the longest track on the album, which finds Parks’ ambition overflowing. Tribal drums are paired with smooth R&B production, but “ChevyS10” isn’t a bopper, it’s a contemplator, an intermission of sorts from the marathon of bangers contained on Prom Queen. It weaves trap and dream pop together in a blissful binding of genres that wouldn’t normally coalesce, but here feel naturally paired and even summon comparisons to Frank Ocean’s Blond.

Parks accomplishes so much growth on Prom Queen that there were bound to be some areas with less attention, namely her usage of said violin, which was once her signature weapon. She makes brief use of it intermittently throughout the album, and while it’s absence is a shame, the overwhelmingly positive vibes that come from Natural Brown Prom Queen more than make up for it. Parks has made her most undeniable statement yet, an album full of uplifting and mesmerizing neo-classics that will fit right in the hearts and minds of the thousands it will touch.