The prom queen, characterized by unkempt makeup and a tattered dress while emanating a histrionic vibe, is a pop culture symbol with extensive lineage. Courtney Love used the aesthetic for the cover of Hole’s 1994 alternative classic album Live Through This. In 2021, pop behemoth Olivia Rodrigo deployed it for Sour Prom, her concert film. Most recently, Brittney Parks, who uses the moniker Sudan Archives to record shapeshifting indie-pop, put her own spin on the well-worn motif with Natural Brown Prom Queen.
On her second full-length record, Parks discards the typically disheveled prom-queen aesthetic to present imaginative idealism. Tears of makeup aren’t streaming down her face. Instead, Parks joyously assumes the prom-queen title as the person she is today. “Basically, when I go on tour, I’m imagining it as the prom I never went to,” she tells SPIN over the phone.
The new album is also a significant expansion of her idiosyncratic sound. Parks already proved her mettle by leaving her experimental tendencies on full display, as heard on her earlier releases like her studio debut, 2019’s Athena, and the two EPs that preceded it. Now, she’s taking her artistry a step further. As she declares in the chorus of “NBPQ (Topless),” she’s not average.
“I’ve grown as a writer and producer, so it just sounds like the next level of what I’ve already done,” Parks says. “I feel like, now, I’ve figured out the best way to collaborate. I like to do things remotely, and I was able to get a lot more done that way, too.”
She describes the creative process of Natural Brown Prom Queen as a mixture of how she created her EPs and Athena. She worked on 2017’s eponymous EP and its 2018 follow-up, Sink, on her own. Parks’ proper debut LP saw her traveling from studio to studio, working with a suite of other producers for the first time. Her latest, as she describes, was “a blind test.” Her manager created a list of prospective producers, including dance staple Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs and hip-hop visionary Nosaj Thing, for her to work with, but she had a caveat: “I wanted [my manager] to not tell me who anyone was and send me a bunch of numbered tracks. That was all the producers and what they did to the demos that I made.”
This gave Parks the freedom of collaboration with the autonomy of working solo. She picked out what she liked, omitted what she didn’t, and mixed everything together. Whereas many artists enjoy working face-to-face, there was a different kind of creative liberty to be gained through this method.
“Because I was overseeing everything and I had everything in my own hands, I was able to remember exactly what I wanted to fine-tune and do it right then,” she says. “If you like somebody’s contributions but don’t like the drums, you can just take the parts you like and not use the drums. You get to do more mixed-media stuff rather than working from beginning to end in a studio.”
Still, it’s not like Parks isn’t creating her own loops and beats, too. She has always explored the sundry possibilities of the violin, experimenting with the instrument to craft sounds one wouldn’t typically associate with it. Although it’s difficult to tell because she didn’t use bowing techniques, she used the violin instead to make basslines and drum loops on songs like “Homesick (Gorgeous & Arrogant),” her favorite song on the album as of now, and “Copycat (Broken Notions).”
If anything, Natural Brown Prom Queen is an ode to her original hometown, Cincinnati. It’s where she learned to play the violin. It was where she harnessed her creativity and dreamed up her own worlds. The album’s final track, “#513,” named after its area code, pays homage to her Midwestern roots. To combat her homesickness, Parks made this album. Just as she built her own world as a child, she travels back home through the sheer power of her music. Even if she isn’t physically there anymore, she can go anywhere she wants. In the album’s final moments, Parks reifies that idea with one last line: “I’m going back to Cincinnati.” This time, she’s going back as a prom queen.