Growing up, Brittney Parks, the violinist and singer better known by her stage name Sudan Archives, never stayed in one place for long. Though she mostly grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, Parks moved around a bunch, attending twenty different high schools before leaving the state when she was 19. Whenever she visits, she feels almost like a tourist.
Parks now lives in Los Angeles, where she’s been for the last five years. A lot has changed for the artist during that time. The release of her 2019 debut album Athena rocketed her to stardom, garnering rave reviews for its refreshing, avant-garde stylistic eclecticism; the mix of traditional African string instrumentation and lyrical, cautionary musings about technology and the internet toyed with Afrofuturist tradition.
Despite all this change, Parks has managed to put down roots in the city, and finally build a home for herself as an adult, a move which has inspired a new direction for her music.
“The first song on the new album that I made is ‘Home Maker’, because during that period I actually had time to decorate my house,” Parks told me over Zoom. “I was really feeling like Martha Stewart and my place feels like such a vibe now. That was the beginning of the whole idea of the album.”
Lead single ‘Home Maker’ eventually expanded into Park’s second album, Natural Brown Prom Queen (NBPQ). The record is wide-ranging and demonstrates enormous creative growth for Parks, who effortlessly slips between quick rap, elongated ballads and ethereal strings.
At the album’s core is a question of belonging, as we see Parks’ idea of home shift throughout the tracks. “Don’t you feel at home when you’re with me?” Parks asks on ‘Home Maker.’ It’s a rhetorical question, delivered more like a demand. Closing number, ‘#513’ finds Parks rapping nostalgically about her hometown: “I’m going back to Cincinnati,” she declares. NBPQ seems to be asking: Is home a thing we are born into or built, find elsewhere or within ourselves?
At distinct points on the record, Parks answers the question differently. ‘Home Maker’ is an ode to the physical abode where she sings lovingly of her LA house, which she describes as a “lovely cottage.” Due to ceilings that are so low that Parks could touch them if she jumped, she decorated her house in a sort of make-shift “Japanese” style, putting everything, from couches to her bed, on the floor or very low to the ground. “Every time I invite people over now they’re just like, ‘oh my God, it’s such a vibe’,” she gushes. She even turned her basement into her studio, giving it a cozy garden aesthetic with fake grass on the floor. She recorded NBPQ almost entirely at home, working with collaborators remotely. “This way felt more natural for me, because I’m definitely a bedroom producer,” said Parks.
At the same time, the artist expresses a more existential longing for home that transcends beyond the material, a desire to feel at peace in her own body. “If I cut my hair, hope I grow it long / Back long back time like way before / If I wear it straight will they like me more? / Like those girls on front covers,” she sings on ‘Selfish Soul’. Parks similarly laments how Western beauty standards make her body feel uninhabitable on the album’s titular song, ‘NBPQ (Topless)’: “Sometimes I think that if I was light-skinned / Then I would get into all the parties / Win all the Grammys, make the boys happy.”
Though NBPQ is thematically heavy compared to the artist’s earlier work, in other ways, it is where we hear Parks at her freest. Many songs, such as ‘OMG BRITT’ and ‘Copycat (Broken Notions)’ find the artist rapping, something previously unheard of in her repertoire. Other tracks feel like multiple songs artfully coalesced into one: ‘NBPQ (Topless)’ effortlessly transitions from an urgent, cacophonous blend of strings into a high pitched auto-tuned rap backed by heavy percussion, and then once more into a slow, sultry violin decrescendo. This experimentation is one of Parks’ favorite parts of the music making process. “I focus on getting the weirdest sounds out of instruments,” she tells me. It’s a process that has shaped her artistry: “I remember when I first started making music, I was just plugging the violin into a bunch of pedals, and sometimes things would just blow up,” she recalls.
Despite impressive musical experimentation, strings remain an important component of Parks’ album, appearing in some variation in every song. Aside from her usual violin, she incorporated other string instruments, such as a bouzouki, a loot-like instrument popular in Greece, into the record. Inspired by African string artists such as Francis Bebey, Parks believes this dedication to violin places her music firmly in the Afrofuturist genre.
“My music isn’t super palatable to some people. You have to be open minded to listen to it”
“My music isn’t super palatable to some people because it’s a little psychedelic and kind of futuristic,” says Parks. “You have to be open minded to listen to it. It’s not regular R&B, it’s like futuristic, modern, electronic, fiddle-R&B.”
NBPQ is futuristic, eclectic and ambitious, gliding between place, genre and the boundaries of time. It seems that Parks feels at home in this amorphous space between comfort and change. “I’ve played some of the new stuff for crowds and it’s felt different but great,” she remarks. “I’m just always out of breath.”
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