Natural Brown Prom Queen coverart. Stones Throw 2022
Only a minute after it begins, "NBPQ (Topless)" changes course entirely. The song - the second track on Sudan Archives' second full-length Natural Brown Prom Queen - breaks free of the fervent hand-clapped rhythm and bouzouki it starts with, ascending into an altogether new choral passage. Then, just as quickly as it arrived, this detour is cut short, and the song picks up right where it left off.
Moments like these illustrate what makes Natural Brown Prom Queen effortlessly coalesce. The LA-by-way-of-Cincinnati artist's latest feels confidently untethered to any singular genre or mode, often drastically shifting in sound between tracks or even (in the case of "NBPQ") within the span of a song. Her approach to what a sophomore album can be is staunchly ambitious at every turn, and the record is all the more exciting because of it.
Though the album is wholly distinct from her debut LP Athena, it's not altogether a departure for Sudan (the artistic moniker of Brittany Parks). While her previous record often used her background as a self-taught violinist as the core for melodies and beats - centering the instrument more often than not - its diversions like hip-hop highlight "Glorious" paved the way for Natural Brown Prom Queen's emboldened genre-breaking aspirations. The violin remains in the mix, often as a crucial element driving a track home, whether in the disco flourishes of opener "Home Maker" and the fiddle lead of "TDLY (Homegrown Land)" or subtly transformed into bass lines and drum loops.
But describing Sudan solely as a "violinist" doesn't do justice to how versatile she's become - as a singer, rapper, songwriter, and conceptualist. The choice to decentralize the violin is essential to the overall aims of the record, which redefines what a Sudan Archives album can sound like as part of a larger refusal to let herself be pigeonholed. It's not just the ease with which Sudan moves through so many styles that makes Natural Brown Prom Queen impeccable. Each turn into pop, R&B, electronica, and rap fleshes out Sudan's larger intent of writing about the multifaceted nature of identity. Just as the album never strictly adheres to a single descriptor, Sudan weaves a sprawling record-length narrative that defies attempts to narrowly reduce the person at the center.
Natural Brown Prom Queen's loose overarching story goes like this: A semi-autobiographical tale, the album follows a Cincinnati girl named Britt as she finds her way to Hollywood, navigating her sense of home, family, desire, Black womanhood, and place in the world around her. The looseness of this narrative is ultimately to the record's benefit, as Sudan's lyrical attention to the intersections and overlaps of various thematic elements not only makes Natural Brown Prom Queen more rewarding on repeat listens but allows the songs to breathe and exhilarate on their own terms.
On a pure songwriting level, what makes this record especially engaging is just seeing what kinds of disparate songs Sudan will conjure up next and how well each plays to her strengths. Across these 18 tracks, she sounds just as much at home in the mid-tempo neo-soul of "FLUE" as she does on the jittery Jim-E Stack-produced synth-funk of "Milk Me." The album's hairpin turns, such as the amped-up trap of "OMG BRITT" leading into roadside cruising ballad "Chevy S10," are invigorating in their own right, speaking to Sudan's ability to sequence Natural Brown Prom Queen with as much consideration for the album's flow as its capacity for unpredictability.
And then there are the tracks that keep surprising even once you think you've gotten a solid handle on them. Sudan often brings elements from multiple producers and demos into any given song - a move that makes Natural Brown Prom Queen feel like her careful curation of the multitude of sounds that best represent each side of her. "NBPQ" is the biggest example of this - with the aforementioned beat switches that jump from album co-producer Ben Dickey's work to Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaur's "anime-sounding moment," pulling the track from fast-paced rap verses to somewhere near the Akira score. But there are less dramatic forms of metamorphosis too. "OMG BRITT" adds onto its initial trap beat with footwork drumline samples and a hazy synth loop that wouldn't feel out of place on Battles' early EPs.
It's "Chevy S10," however, where Sudan's ability to wring everything she can out of a song's potential really shines. As the record's longest song and centerpiece, "Chevy S10" unfolds patiently across six minutes, its synths and guitars laid-back at first before percussion and multi-tracked harmonies begin to fill the negative space. Then the beat fully kicks in toward the end as Sudan hits the track's hook, backed with chopped vocal samples that pivot the R&B song into something more akin to house music. And, just like that, the small interpersonal world Sudan sets up with the couple at the song's heart opens up, making their escape feel as expansive as the road they're cruising down.
The record never sacrifices its cohesion for variety. Divided by three interludes (two of which are from Parks' parents), Natural Brown Prom Queen excels in stringing together improbable runs that would come off as less tactful she didn't put so much thought into each track's significance and place. The album's closing run is exceptional in this regard: The slow-burning unrequited desire of "Homesick (Gorgeous & Arrogant)" flips into the frank synthetic slap bass lust of "Milk Me" before Sudan does a complete 180 into early 2000s alt-R&B stunner "Yellow Brick Road" - a song that could've burned up the charts alongside Brandy and Amerie, evoking the sounds of "home" by conjuring up musical signifiers of the past.
The vast breadth on display from Sudan is woven right into her lyricism as well. Threads and topics recur even as the accompanying sounds shift. The opening lines about colorism in the music industry on "NBPQ" later tie into "Selfish Soul," which sees Sudan reflecting on her relationship to growing out Black hair in a culture fueled by Eurocentric beauty standards. Sudan later builds this idea into the album's larger musings on individuality - on "Copycat (Broken Notions)," she brushes off those trying to shallowly imitate her by insisting, "You can't replace me," a sentiment echoed on closing track "#513" ("Hollywood will make you hollow/ I'm too rooted in my ways").
That's ultimately what makes Natural Brown Prom Queen a phenomenal listen - for all the modes and inspirations Sudan Archives touches upon, the synthesis of it all feels undeniably hers, never losing sight of the clear and bold artistic identity formed by these influences. Even less showy tracks, like the killer Prince-via-Ciara funk jam "Freakalizer," land distinctly as Sudan's own for how they entwine everything that informs her as an artist: her robust musical background in carving out her own independent path against her rejection of becoming a teen pop star, her roots in both Cincinnati and LA, her fixations on the spaces between rather than giving into strict, reductive delineation.
Natural Brown Prom Queen is all the more enthralling, too, for what it spells out for the future of Sudan Archives as an artist. Two albums into her career, it's clear that Sudan's early EPs and Athena came nowhere close to revealing all she had to say through her music. And though this album opens up countless new avenues for Sudan, it wouldn't be surprising if it proves to only be a fraction of what she still has to offer. In a recent tweet, she prefaced her music video for "NBPQ (Topless)" by saying the album showcases "a side of myself that only my love ones know," asserting that she hasn't changed but is simply revealing new dimensions of herself to the public. If this record is any indication, she's just getting started showing the world what she's capable of.
Natural Brown Prom Queen is out 9/9 on Stone Throw.