Sudan Archives – Natural Brown Prom Queen [REVIEW]

On “NBPQ (Topless),” the title track from Brittney Parks’ new album as Sudan Archives, she offers what seems to be a concise origin story: “Let me tell y’all about this girl Sudan/She had a great big heart and a real big smile,” she raps. “Mama knocked on the door, it go rat-a-ta-tat/She said, ‘My boyfriend think you could be a star.’

But then the story inverts, trails off: “And it really didn’t even work out like that/Got kicked out ‘cuz she laid on her back…All she wanna do is watch Sailor Moon/Smoke weed and stare up at the moon.” But even when her braggadocio turns into wistful melancholia, she doesn’t skip a beat; her voice dances over the skittering handclaps and cavernous, punishing bass.

This story – its elliptical, inconclusive weft – references Parks’ past in a teen-pop duo called N2, a project spearheaded by her stepfather. The group fell apart when she realized she needed more creative freedom; this freedom eventually led to Natural Brown Prom Queen, a record that’s intimately concerned with Parks’ past, locked into a carefree youthfulness that may only exist in fantasy. A press release describes the record as a sort of alternate-universe version of real life – in which Parks writes from the point of view of “Britt,” who “shows up to high-school prom in a pink furry bikini with her thong hanging out her denim skirt.”

The image is indelible on its own, but it gains weight juxtaposed against the pain and sadness sniffing around the edges of the record. Parks looks at her past through a constantly shifting lens, both idealizing and mourning it; and her songs start and stop in strange places, cycling through tempos and melodies and rhythms with ease and fluidity. 

The laid-back guitars on “Ciara” suddenly give way to a muddy, booming bridge, which then shapeshifts into a house thump. “Loyal (EDD)” pulses outward from its opening horn figure until its beat is so vast that Parks’ ascending harmonies can echo into infinity; then a digitized metronome cuts in and the song evaporates completely. The aforementioned “NBPQ” stacks its ideas so thick and fast that, when its coda suddenly covers her voice in mournful strings and molasses-thick echo, it’s hard to believe that it all fit into the same three minutes.

Screenshot from the music video for “Selfish Soul

Mid-album highlight “ChevyS10” is the longest track here, and one of the most playful. Parks glitches her voice like it’s caught in a computer screen; a kickdrum punctuates the sound of a phone dialing, like heartbeats. The song’s opening minute is so luxuriously textured, with downy synth pads and gleaming guitar tones, that its wistfulness slips in almost imperceptibly. Parks sings about a girl driving around town, confused at “how everything turns into gold” but determined to make the most of it. But then she jumps up to sing the song’s hook, so vulnerable and clear that it slices right through: “I hope he understands.” On that last word, her vibrato ripples so intensely that it stops feeling human, pulled into the ethereal gravity of pure feeling.

Even when the tempo speeds up and its full breadth becomes apparent, “ChevyS10” maintains this sense of unreality, with thickets of vocodered harmonies, chrome-plated violins, and vocal samples pinging across the four-on-the-floor beat. Parks narrates a love found and lost, torn apart by distance and the mundane realities of needing to work to live, but she always sounds like she’s right on the line between melancholy and ecstasy. Even when she quotes Tracy Chapman at her most wrenching – “We can leave tonight, or we can die this way” – she navigates away from despair, repeating “We cruising in the Chevy S10” as the beat swerves into earthy, streamlined house. The joy and freedom of the past become accessible in the present.

The past is a talisman; it’s something that can be flattened and carried through the present. “It’s Already Done,” a funky interlude shortly after “ChevyS10,” assures that “no matter what you’re going through – it’s already done.” It compresses the unmanageability of the present into the more bearable realm of the past. This compression is freeing; but on the record’s knottier second half it emphasizes the fragility of the present, too.

“Freakalizer,” to my ears the best song on the album, is awash in the same wistful melancholia that suffuses “ChevyS10.” But instead of mining joy from the past, it looks at the present with a haunted mournfulness. The song embraces 80s freestyle, with a streamlined beat reminiscent of Lisa Lisa or Company B; its low end is heavy and propulsive. But its high end is distorted and nearly empty, with synth tones that decay into static. Parks’ voice is processed through filters and pitch correction, masking her high notes and making her sound like she’s pushing through the production in order to be heard. Periodically, a warped vocal sample will spiral through the mix, while burbling synths clamber up and down on the song’s edges.

Parks’ lyrics here are sad and horny and tender, locating the tension between the song’s delicate soundscape and its relentless momentum. “No, I don’t wanna be lonely/But these hormones are making me horny/…Can we please try again in the morning?,” she sings, her voice stacked into wispy columns. There’s a sense of urgency, almost panic – during the song’s final verse, she shifts into a rapid sing-rap delivery, piling confessions and apologies and pledges of loyalty together: “I wanna love you til you get old/And dance all night until this beat goes/I just wanna build, let’s go.” It’s like she’s trying to convince her partner, or maybe herself, that the present can be preserved, even as the beat drives the song inexorably forward. She knows it might be just another talisman, someday.

Maybe this impermanence explains Natural Brown Prom Queen’s preoccupation with home. On “Freakalizer,” she sings “We need to settle down/Because we don’t got time to let time pass us by”; the song’s invocation of building, its fantasy of growing old with a loved one, makes it seem like “settle down” means more than just “calm down.” The following song, “Homesick (Gorgeous & Arrogant),” suddenly shifts focus from desire to sadness: “I just want the D-I-C-K/Problems is not what I’m seeking/I just miss my homie TK/I just miss my mama,” she yelps across the song’s dehydrated crawl. But her voice calms when she narrates inviting a guy over for “Little Caesar’s, arugula, and some wine” – like she’s finding home, or at least some version of it.

Natural Brown Prom Queen is ultimately about how all of our past homes can sustain us, and how we’re always in the process of building new ones. “Homesick” contrasts with “Home Maker,” the album’s opening track and lead single, where she asserts, “I’m a homemaker/Don’t you feel at home when I wait on you?” Its soaring disco strings channel the past, but its flickering harmonies lend it a hallucinatory quality, loosening it from a fixed point in time; it’s the memory of the past, rendered in the present. After all, isn’t that what home is? A place to keep all of your past, to live your present, and plan your future?

Support Natural Brown Prom Queen over on bandcamp, or stream it on your preferred platform. You can also follow Sudan Archives on Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram.

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