Singer and violinist Brittney Denise Parks, better known as Sudan Archives, has never smashed a violin — at least until recently, when she shattered one on the floor in the music video for the single “OMG BRITT,” the fourth track from her sophomore album Natural Brown Prom Queen. This was her first-ever violin, received in the fourth grade, and has been by her side through many crucial moments. But she destroyed it remorselessly. “It felt so good smashing (the violin). I felt like I killed someone,” she recalled in a recent interview with The Ringer.
Compared to her cleanly-produced debut album Athena, Archives’s sprawling new project evokes this cathartic violin smash. It’s messy and overwhelmingly personal, with witty humor that blankets the album’s emotionally-crushing undertones. Take lead single and opener “Home Maker,” an elaborate and humorous depiction of Archives as a housewife, satirizing subservience: “I’m a home maker … don’t you feel at home when I wait on you?” The song puts up an erotic facade, masking its distressing edge with Archives’s swagger in the sung-rapped first verse, which slowly reveals itself as the track progresses with swells of strings and Archives’s histrionic cries in the second verse.
“Selfish Soul” sounds more anthemic and direct in comparison, addressing the listener in the chanted chorus fueled by a stomp-stomp-clap beat: “I don’t want no struggles, I don’t want no fears … does it make sense to you why I cut it off?” The song is a “celebration of hair” according to Archives, laced with the same humor as “Home Maker.” As a Black woman, she contemplates what she should do with her hair in a predominantly white society, in which straighter hair is often seen as more professional and respectable. Archives wishes she could style her hair free of judgment; in the anecdotal third verse, she reminisces about going out with a guy and fearing whether her clip-ins would fall out and kill the vibe. The mood of the track is incredibly lighthearted and uplifting instrumentally, but the message underneath remains personal.
Like “Home Maker” and “Selfish Soul,” the rest of the album feels like excerpts from Archives’s diary. Natural does away with the conventional pop song structure: Most songs don’t even contain a fully-fledged chorus, yet the album is even catchier than Athena. “TDLY (Homegrown Land)” is a kiss-off to an ex, featuring Archives rap-singing effortlessly over jubilant violin paired with a wood block and handclaps. Such a song would feel so out of place on Athena, yet it would undoubtedly outshine most of the album. Tracks like this showcase Archives’s personality and penmanship, and the strings only further elevate Natural’s uniqueness among modern pop and R&B as a whole. “NBPQ (Topless)” is a lively, propulsive song of empowerment, with Archives frantically sing-rapping, “I’m not average” and “I just wanna have my titties out.” It ends with a beautiful string passage that brings a melancholic mood to the lyrics. The outward, bold declarations of “I’m not average” feel like hopeless self-encouragement. The entire song is theatrical, beautifully produced and undeniably Sudan Archives.
“ChevyS10” serves as the album’s six-minute multi-phased centerpiece, retelling a love story reminiscent of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” which Archives directly references in the lyrics. When the track picks up momentum in the second half, it bumps, resembling a ballroom-esque house jam that one could vogue to. This is her cathartic violin smash, her moment of escape when she realizes she is onto a bigger and better chapter of her life. It is a complete mood-switch from the preceding tracks, the luscious, climactic “Loyal (EDD)” and dark trap banger “OMG BRITT,” dissing fake friends and foreshadowing the themes of self-empowerment and escapism on “ChevyS10.” Admittedly “OMG BRITT” feels somewhat out of place on the album, but lyrically this was a perfect slot for the track’s bombast and humor, showing Archives’s anger in the midst of “Loyal’s” grief and “ChevyS10’s” onward-gazing acceptance.
Toward the middle of the record, songs like “Freakalizer” feel like an album filler. Archives’s vocal delivery is not enough to sustain the interest of the listener, though the glistening production fueled by a Miami bass beat and the song’s overall catchiness keep it on ultra-smooth cruise control. The record ends on a strong note, with the sensual and explicit “Milk Me” that emanates the same envious yearning as someone staring at an ex conversing with another person from across the room. The track awkwardly stumbles at first on purpose, slowly melting into itself as Archives delves into her own selfish sexual desires. Immediately after, “Yellow Brick Road” and “#513” show Archives speaking about her hometown Cincinnati, the latter song a bitter assertion of her independence from “nasty Nati” and the “hollow” city of Hollywood. She is acknowledging her roots and her current home of California, while fully separating herself from their “tricky, trendy” status quo. It’s a perfect reflection of the album’s main themes. Rarely has modern pop and R&B sounded this forthright.
Daily Arts Contributor Zachary Taglia can be reached at email@example.com.