Natural Brown Prom Queen (Stones Throw)
THERE IS SOME VALUE IN A PERIOD OF MOURNING. Hopefully the international village idiot, Piers Morgan, and his pale and stale echoes online, are not paying attention to music at the moment – it’s hard to fit that in with your daily requirement to be sexist, racist, pig-ignorant and boorish, so they are probably safe – because Brittney Parks, aka Sudan Archives, would drive him bananas.
Not just because she is a woman, not just because she is not white, and not just because she has acquired a royal title (with this album) or because she would refuse his advances as a matter of course (and taste) – though as we all know, any one of those is more than enough to set them off, let alone all together.
But Parks commits the final crime for the likes of Morgan by being smarter and better, and tops it off by being almost impossible to narrow down across 18 tracks. I know right, the brazen hussy!
Album number two from the Cincinnati-raised violinist/songwriter/singer/producer expands her remit dramatically. This is an album which moves in and out of percussion-driven dance and big pop melodies, bent-shaped R&B and spoken-word interludes, lean funk and slinky soul, Euro-folk loose limbed hip-hop, and briefly, even a kind of elegant Vegas.
It utilises organic and electronic sounds, Afro-traditional and studio-manipulated instruments, lead vocals that usually come untreated and backing vocals that come in twos, fives and stacked, there are textures that a palpable and moments that are so smooth you slide across them, and it provokes without straining.
Take a look at three songs in the last third of the album. Freakalizer, a kind of ‘90s R&B reimagined as Kraftwerk-meets-Sade, has a busy skitter that doesn’t feel nervy, with a melody that cruises with ease. It bubbles with life but still feels laidback just enough. Weird. Right next to it is Homesick (Gorgeous & Arrogant) which rolls in on a low rumbling cloud, finds saxophone and bass making alternate jazz-shaped moves in the fog, and allows Parks to scratch at the surface with her vocals. Unusual. And then there’s Milk Me which pairs a minimal but honeyed melody, in the mould of ‘60s French pop, with an electronic rhythm that trots beneath it, and intervenes now and then with a vibrating tone that’s halfway between a kora and a mouth harp. Odd.
Except that the problem with those descriptions is that they are only weird, unusual or odd on entry; by the time you’ve heard these a few times Parks has convinced you this is how the song was always meant to sound.
There’s a lot more, like the sinuous bustling of NBPQ (Topless), which is hips, shoulders and restless eyes, and Loyal (EDD) a barebones shot at harmony pop; the sunshine hip-hop of Yellow Brick Road, with its snaking electronica offset by front parlour piano, and late night hip-hop of OMG BRITT, with its murmurs and breaths given some foreboding by inflections of menace in her unhurried delivery. But a clue to the album’s directions or approaches could be summed up in one song, ChevyS10, and its postscript.
The album’s midpoint and longest track at just over six minutes (on a record where only one other track exceeds five minutes and most settle under three) ChevyS10 begins as a chilled flow, opens out to a kind of tremulous ballad, adds layers of voice and instrumentation on the way to turning into an ‘80s club groove that slides and glides, tarts things up with some folk fiddle as the groove pulls back into a top-down drive. Then, hot on its heels comes Copycat (Broken Notions) which briskly breaks down into a crisp rhythm that is over so soon you aren’t ever sure it wasn’t just a final section to ChevyS10.
This diverse in a world which likes homogenous might sound jarring, but Natural Brown Prom Queen fits together so easily, naturally. But don’t tell Piers: he’d never understand that she’s another smart brown woman just too good for the likes of him.
APPLE MUSIC: Listen to Sudan Archives - Natural Brown Prom Queen