Sudan Archives has given herself a belated introduction that exceeds even the loftiest expectations.
Brittney Parks has had a long road to her debut album. Her first recordings as Sudan Archives, released in 2017, leaned heavily toward experimentalism, mixing Sudanese fiddle techniques with electronic loops into a mutated form of R&B that crisscrossed so many Western and African styles that it was staggering to consider that her first EP only ran to about 15 minutes. Athena, Sudan Archives’ first full-length, is the product of gradual refinement. It differs sharply from the artist’s early, outré work in its poppier framework, yet all of the experimental qualities remain in place, making for a startling debut.
Parks’ violin is still front and center. “Did You Know” opens the album with gentle plucking of the strings, making a primitive, bedroom pop beat as Parks sings plaintive lines like “When I was a little girl/ I thought I could rule the world.” Suddenly, a ringing in the distance heralds the arrival of a fat-bottomed percussive beat that is propulsive but spacious, not lurching into view like a drop so much as adding flesh to the song’s stripped-down structure. The end result sounds like contemporary R&B shot through with a dose of trip-hop’s dubby tone, as loose as it is simple.
The opener sets a standard that the rest of the album expands in strange directions. “Black Vivaldi Sonata” lurches like a tranquilized animal, stumbling and catching itself as it struggles to stay awake. Arrhythmic snares ping around a staggered click track, all as Parks’ violin glides so far back in the mix that it almost sounds like a hallucination. “Iceland Moss” slurs into view before a hollow bassline rings out and a smooth beat rolls out amid blurts of trumpet. The song oscillates between straightforward R&B and something off-center as Parks traverses a bad romance and observes “You’re just like/ My father/ You don’t know when to quit it.” These songs sound more like pop than anything on the early Sudan Archives EPs, but they are nonetheless twisted just enough out of proportion to produce cognitive dissonance, a feeling that you’re listening to pop that’s gone off the rails despite its underlying cohesion.
Elsewhere, the early Sudan Archives shines through more clearly. “Glorious” dives back into Parks’ roots, looping a sidewinding, sunbaked violin line over a vocal cadence that bridges hip-hop and tribal stylings, a connection made more explicit by D-Eight’s guest verse. “Stuck” is a dub instrumental, blending high-soaring violins with distended bass for an eerie 70-second sojourn. At times, the early and current Sudan Archives synchronize in thrilling ways. “Coming Up” starts as chamber R&B before exploding into a more widescreen panorama of R&B that rises from woozy and brittle to expansive electronic washes and back again. Through it all, Parks adopts a confessional lyrical prism that clashes with such ambitious shakeups of form, grounding her album in the same raw honesty that marks the finest R&B.
The final quarter of 2019 has already seen a rash of bold pop albums making a strong case not only for album of the year consideration but decade lists as well. Admittedly, Athena doesn’t quite reach this level when compared to the likes of Pang or Magdalene, but it is nonetheless the assured work of an artist who quietly focused her work for years. Few could have anticipated from Parks’ early material that she would fully arrive not as a fringe, avant-garde artist but a bonafide artpop voice. With her protean sound and bracingly honest lyrics, Sudan Archives has given herself a belated introduction that exceeds even the loftiest expectations, and in a field already crowded with ambitious emerging talents, she can stand among the best.