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Sudan Archives: this queen of electro-R&B is a genre-bender

Sudan Archives' dazzling second full-length album, ‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’, is unabashedly autobiographical

The singularity of ‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’ is its shape-shifting nature.
The singularity of ‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’ is its shape-shifting nature.

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At the heart of Sudan Archives’ songs is her violin. And yet, you may not always notice that easily. If you watch her perform in 2020 at the NPR Tiny Desk Concert (and I would highly recommend that you do), you can see her virtuosity with that instrument. Two of the three songs she performed during that session, accompanied by another violinist, a violist and a cellist, were from her first album, Athena, released in 2019; the third song was an earlier released single.

The NPR performance at the public radio’s Washington, DC offices was, however, not typical of how Sudan Archives uses the violin in her music. In her albums and live performances, you may even find the violin difficult to identify in its purest sense at times—enhanced by electronic wizardry, she can make it sound like a drum or even a saxophone. After the Tiny Desk gig, you could switch back to another video of a full performance at the studios of the KEXP radio channel, also from 2019, to see how she is able to make her violin sound chameleon-like.

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Sudan Archives is a mostly self-taught violinist and multi-instrumentalist who is all of 25. Born Brittney Parks, she was renamed Sudan by her mother and by the time she began performing and recording, Archives got added to the name. So her stage name is both unusual and striking.

Sudan picked up the violin at 10, learning it by listening to Celtic folk tunes. Then she started playing at churches as part of the choir and began exploring the violin styles in Western classical music. Later, as an African-American (and because she had been renamed Sudan), she started exploring African music, discovering traditional Sudanese and Ghanaian one-string violin styles and composers such as the Cameroonian Francis Bebey.

All those influences are incorporated in Sudan Archives’ music, which has often been labelled electro-soul but is in reality way beyond such pigeon-holing. Sudan is a true bender of genres. She largely produces her own music, has her own studio and has talked in interviews about her ambition of becoming a producer for other musicians, mainly women.

Early this September, Sudan released her second full-length album, a dazzling one titled Natural Brown Prom Queen. If Athena stood out as an experimental alternative R&B work in which she collaborated with at least a dozen co-producers and wowed the critics, her second takes her output to an altogether different level. It’s unabashedly autobiographical, with Sudan, a self-confessed introvert, telling her story in lyrics that are candid, uninhibited and confessional.

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In the opening track, Home Maker, for instance, she begins apparently tamely by singing, I just got a wall mount for plants/ And hoping that they’ll thrive around the madness, but soon declares that there are Only bad bitches in my trellis/ And baby, I’m the baddest. Those are the sort of shifting emotions and thoughts that mark not only Sudan’s lyrics but her music as well.

In Home Maker, we are taken on a roller-coaster ride where electronic dance music cross-breeds with R&B and pop. The luscious string arrangements are embroidered on a sheet of infectiously danceable drum lines. The second track, NBPQ (Topless)—the initials obviously refer to the album’s title—is described by Sudan as “a song of redemption and freedom”. She says it’s “about my insecurities that I have being a brown skin black female in the world and how to navigate through that while facing American beauty standards”. Sudan raps on the song, starting with: 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/ Fuck lookin’ sassy, they think I’m sexy. But then her attitude shifts to stress that she doesn’t really give a damn and that she’s a natural, natural brown prom queen/ ’Cause I’m not average.

The singularity of Natural Brown Prom Queen is its shape-shifting nature. Jazz transforms into R&B; R&B turns into funk; funk turns into catchy hook-laden pop. One factor in this was the collaborative nature of the album. Partly because of covid-19 but also because Sudan is the sort of musician who is not comfortable playing at other people’s studios, she made demos and sent them to other producers, who laid down their lines and submitted them to her. She then chose from the options she got, taking some, rejecting others.

The violin may not be as upfront in Natural Brown Prom Queen as it is in Sudan’s earlier songs, or even Athena. But it is there, with her solos pretty obvious on at least half a dozen of the 18 songs. And, for the ones on which you think you are not listening to the violin, it could be that she’s channelling electronics to make her plucking sound like a drum loop or her bow strokes seem like horns!

With her sophomore album, Sudan Archives is clearly at the vanguard of a new movement—of the singer-songwriter evolving into what one might call a singer-songwriter-cum-producer. Keep your ears open for more from her.

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