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Sudan Archives' vibrant music of exploration

Born Brittney Parks and nicknamed Sudan as a child, the artist is driven by her intense curiosity.
Edwig Henson
Born Brittney Parks and nicknamed Sudan as a child, the artist is driven by her intense curiosity.

Sudan Archives' music celebrates digging. With infectious curiosity, her oddball collages of hip-hop, electronic and globally sourced folk bridge worlds and tramp through them, encouraging you to forge your own routes as well. Across two EPs and an album, the self-taught violinist, producer and songwriter has honed a distinct blend of layered vocals and instrumentation that both pleases the ear and challenges it to parse all the fusion. Her vibrant second album, Natural Brown Prom Queen, details her passages between her hometown of Cincinnati, her adopted city of Los Angeles and the many other locales, people and traditions that inform her idiosyncratic style. The record feels like a world tour of her brain, particular yet capacious — and always active.

Cosmopolitan music often leans heavily into the rush and the signifiers of jetsetting — accents, passports, landmarks, cuisines, runways — but Natural Brown Prom Queen's preoccupation is terroir, the distinct conditions that make a place unique. Sudan Archives doesn't just experience or consume global sounds; she interacts with them, her fingers sifting through the soil as she feels out every little element. "Suck out the honey," she implores on the steamy R&B track "Milk Me," capturing the intimacy and pleasure of her sourcing. Each encounter seems to clarify her own origins and path forward.

The album builds on the conviction of her debut, Athena, which bolstered her signature sound with heftier singing and breezy rapping. The cover of that globetrotting record, which pictured Sudan Archives and her violin as a Greek statue, captures the whimsy, audacity and confidence of her musical vision. Born Brittney Parks and nicknamed Sudan as a child, the artist is a Black Midwesterner with no direct ties to Sudan, South Sudan or Greece. She picked up the violin when a chance performance by Canadian fiddlers at her Ohio elementary school sparked an obsession. She learned to play by ear in various ensembles — something she references on the Natural Brown Prom Queen interlude "Do Your Thing (Refreshing Springs)" — and later became interested in the actual sounds of Sudan, which coincidentally has a culture of ceremonial and experimental violin music. She adopted her stage name after this tacit connection implored her to peruse the broader archive of African folk music. More links followed — many of them hyperlinks on YouTube — as she explored and embraced the string traditions of Estonia, Ghana and Russia. All this cultural gallivanting rules out any notion of "authenticity," a fraught term that, in the name of properly attributing sounds and styles to their sources, often conflates origination with originality and inspiration with extraction.

Natural Brown Prom Queen has little interest in proving Parks' legitimacy and is more driven by her intense curiosity. The acts of borrowing and interpolating are openly embedded in the music. On the closer, "513," she warps the hook of LL Cool J's "Going Back to Cali" into a homegoing reprise. Opener "Home Maker" is an ode to personal space that begins with a quicksilver suite that flickers between snatches of synth, trumpet, keys, harp and a breakbeat before settling into a pulsing R&B arrangement. "I'm a homemaker," Sudan Archives sings on the hook, celebrating her domicile and the many elements that comprise it. Her home is a waypoint rather than an enclosure, the space and its builder changing as people and ideas drift through.

That enthusiasm for both influence and confluence flavors the swaggering and saucy album, which finds the singer mulling relationships, her body and her desires over compositions that shimmer with textures and overtones. The songs, which often have multiple producers, practically glow with life, constantly changing direction and shape. "Ciara" wryly uses sun-soaked melodies to toast to a roughneck relative ("I got a cousin in Chicago / Who will smack you in your face") then empties into a sludgy bridge that shifts yet again into a gale of chill funk. The dewy vocals and production on slow jam "ChevyS10" liquefy, sublimate and freeze like water changing states. Noise rap and hyperpop often use volatility to disorient and dissociate, but as Sudan jaunts from Miami bass on "Freakalizer" to Irish jigs on "TDLY (Homegrown Land)" she sounds more grounded and clear-headed.

"Selfish Soul" melds choral harmonies, violin riffs and pounding drums into a folksy rap track, the busyness of the beat matching Sudan's fraught tales of styling her hair. The theme recalls other considerations of Black hair by women in soul music — India.Arie's "I Am Not My Hair" and Solange's "Don't Touch My Hair" — but Sudan's take on the subject emphasizes working for self-acceptance rather than deflecting outside gazes, subtly underscoring that individual autonomy is at the root of such songs even as they mention experiences relatable to any Black woman. "Copycat" approaches the subject differently, Sudan playfully addressing biters. Calling out plagiarists is standard rap stuff, but the song doubles as a metacommentary on the unappreciated omni-influence of Black women, Sudan asking how she can be both despised and Xeroxed. It's a worthwhile question. In a world with so much erasure of Black women's contributions, what can authenticity even look like for them?

Control comes up often on Natural Brown Prom Queen. On the title track, she alludes to her time in N2, a defunct teen-pop duo with her twin sister. She's said that rebelling against the direction of the group, which was put together by her late stepdad, resulted in her getting kicked out the house. Because of this history, the polyvalent music she makes as Sudan Archives is often read as antipop. But here she makes it clear that she rejected her lack of authority rather than the music she made. "I just want to have my t*****s out / T*****s out / T*****s out," she chants in the outro, again linking creative and bodily autonomy. Her music is less a rejection of pop and more an embrace of her uninhibited self. (Plus, her pop instincts are on full display in the composition of these and past songs. She is very capable of writing earworms and being an ethnomusicological nerd at the same damn time.)

When she's not explicitly talking about authority, she's exuding it in her cocksure rapping and singing, which anchors all the album's motion. She gushes with ideas and approaches to these bustling arrangements, hopscotching across drum patterns ("Yellow Brick Road"), bouncing off of basslines ("Copycat") and gliding over melodies ("Homesick"). Her violin appears on over half the songs, but it's less of a focal instrument, underscoring the growing sense that she is the lead. Her widening web of influences and collaborators (most notably multi-instrumentalist Ben Dickey, who is credited on nearly every song) affirms that she is the conductor through which all these currents flow.

It's fitting, then, that her journeys lead her back to Cincinnati on "#513." "Hollywood will make you hollow / I'm too rooted in my ways," she sings defiantly, setting the song up as a prodigal return. But the tinny song is not an ode to the rustbelt city or a homecoming in the typical sense of the word. Sudan Archives doesn't head home to settle old scores, reminisce on better days or restore herself. She goes simply because, in that moment, that's where she wants to be. That caprice captures the itinerant spirit of her music and the album's arch sense of home. In the world of Sudan Archives, home is anywhere, anyone and any sound that pushes you forward.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Kearse