Sudan Archives, aka Brittney Parks, doesn’t do basic.
“I’m not average,” Parks reminds us on the title track of her sprawling, multi-layered, impressive new album Natural Brown Prom Queen. That last word echoes, emphasizing the point: “average, average, average.”
It has never been a term that’s applied to the Cincinnati-born, LA-based vocalist, who has an established prowess for self-produced looping beats, glitchy R&B, mellifluous multi-harmony verses and cut-to-the-chase commentary.
“I’m not a woman of words; I’m a woman of action,” Parks explains via Zoom from Edmonton, Alberta, where she’s readying to perform at the Fringe Festival the next day. “I just hope people wanna dance to this album, actually. So come see the show and dance.”
Across the album, Parks revels in her imagined identity as a Cincinnati high schooler, “Britt,” who shows up to prom, ready to raise hell. Parks has conjured up a parallel version of herself, an outspoken rebel who epitomizes all the qualities that Parks wishes she had during her own peripatetic high school years.
“I never went to prom, so I have no idea what it is, in a way. It just seems to be something I missed out on because of how I chose to isolate myself because I moved around so much. I went to a couple of high schools, so by the time I graduated, everybody was hugging each other, saying how much they’re gonna miss each other and singing songs together. But I don’t feel like that because I’ve just moved there.
So, now I want to reclaim that idea. If I did have a prom now, I would go, you know?”
No doubt, Parks is pure magnetism — both as a live performer and in the studio. Natural Brown Prom Queen proves her sovereignty of the dance floor, and her inimitable skill for snaking intricate violin into her loops, beats and sultry-smooth vocals. The violin is a central element of her live performances, and she’s depicted balancing the instrument in her open palm on the cover of her glorious 2019 debut album Athena.
She sees her follow-up as a natural evolution in her sound and identity, a preparedness to reflect her familial roots while also being more adventurous in throwing genre boundaries to the wind.
“I just wanted a more dance feel,” Parks says. “My mom’s from Detroit, so I was trying to do something inspired by Detroit house, and my dad’s from Chicago, so I was influenced by footwork. Those are both my really dance inspirations, so I was hoping that would come across.”
She has explored terrain well beyond the cities her parents were raised in, going back a generation here and a century there to question what it would take for a Black woman from the suburbs to be hailed as the queen of prom now, here.
Her sophomore album doesn’t swerve from the sociocultural talking points of the last few years, with roots going back decades at least. Womanhood, Black American life, loyalty, identity and female friendship. While her self-titled 2017 debut EP, and Athena, announced her talent, Natural Brown Prom Queen showcases the confidence she’s gained from touring, festivals, collaborations (recently featuring on Neneh Cherry’s “Heart”) and the time she had to create her work, in her way.
Like most, she was stuck at home during the pandemic. A 10-minute walk from downtown LA, it’s the first place she’s lived by herself. She moved in three years ago, “after Coachella.” That’s where she began transforming her basement into a studio. After running a dehumidifier for six months, she fitted it out with all the gear she’d been craving. The liberation of her own space motivated her to create more than the abum’s 18 tracks.
“I ended up with a couple more that didn’t make it,” she concedes. “I began right when the pandemic lockdowns began in mid-2020. I made everything in my basement studio. I have a [Roland] Juno-106 [polyphonic synthesizer] that my sister gave me because she crashed with me for a couple of months. I have a Moog Sub 37; I used that on every song for basslines. I have 10 violins, a bunch of EarthQuaker pedals and others, some broken keyboards I don’t use anymore, a cello and some African instruments.”
[Photo by Ally Green]
It’s the sort of setup that would attract analog synth nerds to stay put, forever. “I don’t leave. That’s the problem!” Parks exclaims with a laugh.
Over 18 tracks, she has sprinkled disco glitter over chunky R&B percussion, bursts of brass amid washes of orchestral strings and, all the while, injecting trippy breakbeat, dub influences. Fans of FKA twigs, Santigold and Rico Nasty will all find familiar and favorable sonic elements here.
In breathy vocals, over the trap beats of “OMG BRITT,” she takes down “fake bitches” in a heaving, snarling anthem for all of us who get the sentiment: “We don’t need no man to pay my rent.”
“The song’s about a girl that I was best friends with, and I feel like there were so many times where she did some things that you shouldn’t do,” she recalls. “I forgave her for it several times because I love her. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything toxic, but she was hurt by something and didn’t want to be friends. I felt like that was really fake, but I learned a big lesson: Don’t expect people to treat you the way you would treat them.
So, the song takes the whole idea of this hoochie Sudan talking shit, and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, my God!’”
In fact, she smashed a violin for its accompanying music video — the first one she ever played.
“It’s a highlight!” Parks exclaims. “I was nervous about breaking it at first, but then I felt like I want to break the boundaries of violin playing. I wanna do something that you haven’t seen before with violin.”
Her compositions typically begin with her violin, she explains.
“I usually start with a bed of violin sounds: violin plucks and violin strings. I make my own composition, then on top of that, ideas flow out lyrically and melodically. That’s always been the case. I used to only consider myself as a violinist and producer, but eventually, I got more confident and started singing and making songs, too.”
Athena gave her the confidence to share her musical language with others, including producers MonoNeon, Simon on the Moon, Hi-Tek and Nosaj Thing. Her family and friends show up on vocals, too. It’s her prom, after all, and she’ll do it her way.
“Now I know how to collaborate with others, and my favorite way is to collaborate remotely. That’s how I made this album. It was all in my basement. Whoever else added something to it, they sent me their ideas, then I pieced everyone’s ideas together.”
Her current favorite track is the sunny synth-pop of “ChevyS10,” which lifts the vibe, all delicate falsetto and panoramic, glimmering synths.
Parks is almost criminally talented. As a vocalist, she’s exemplary as she weaves her voice through her compositions as breezily as she works violin into hip-hop. This album is an opportunity to marvel at her breathy falsetto, chanted mantras, ad-libbed, half-muttered narratives (“TDLY (Homegrown Land)”), sweet soprano and rich, caramel Kidjo-style Afro-Cuban jazzy explorations.
This album is ultimately, Parks says, soundtracking the high school reunion of her dreams.
Her own reality is far from a lonely one, though, however much she alienated herself during high school, and despite claiming to still be a hermit much of the time.
Since moving to LA at 19, she’s attracted like-minded creatives to her orbit.
“I have a lot of close friends that do music, and we live in the same city, we hang out. [Experimental electronica artist] Cat 500, the girl who I first moved out to LA with, she’s the reason why I’m in LA. She’s an LA native, an artist, though she doesn’t really put out music anymore. She’s the reason why I do what I do. She kicked out this dude so I could live in her spare room. There are so many artists in the scene that would drop everything to help me.”
Parks also lauds the artist who introduced her to the road, and the many supporters who comment, share and celebrate her online.
“One of my first tours was tUnE-yArDs [Merrill Garbus], and she was so nice. She let me come on the tour bus with her, and I saw how tours happen. There’s a lot of people online that I don’t even know personally, and I’m feeling sisterly love. Greentea Peng is always commenting on my stuff, and I comment on her stuff.”
Perhaps it’s the phenomenal support she has from family, friends and strangers online that gave her the impetus to stand her ground on sharing an 18-track album in an era in which artists are instead opting to release multiple albums within months (see: Taylor Swift, Röyksopp, King Gizzard, etc.).
“The [label] was thinking that it should be two albums, and just do half of it now, but it wouldn’t make sense for me,” Parks explains. “I’m in the space to put all those songs out now, and I don’t know what space I’ll be in for the next album.
I wanted a double LP. The first two EPs I put out were meant to be one album, but they wanted it to be two EPs because I was a new artist. This time, I put my foot down and said, ‘I just don’t think I’m gonna be in this headspace in a year or two.’ I wanted to put out all the songs, and I wanted to do something unexpected, and the length of this album was unexpected.”
[Photo by Ally Green]
Parks’ unexpected album documents a period in which she was wondering if the world would end, she was arguing with her sister, fighting within her relationship and breaking up with a long-time friend. It’s eminently relatable, in and outside the pandemic.
“I was going through a lot of issues,” she cedes. “[But] we sorted it all out. It was just rough.”
Getting back on the road has required some preparation, with her Homecoming tour kicking off Sept. 24. “I try to work out and have some type of ritual of breathing exercises,” she says. “That helps me feel grounded. I can afford to bring at least a band member and one sound person, so that feels less lonely. Sometimes, my cousin comes because she has an open work schedule, but it’s hard for people to get off work.”
Whatever her actual prom would have been like is irrelevant. Parks has reinvented herself as the Natural Brown Prom Queen, and you’ll want to be dancing in her court.