An intriguing dive into alternative R&B
R&B has been thriving both commercially and critically in recent years, likely due to the boundary-pushers like SZA, Frank Ocean and FKA Twigs, who are currently at the forefront of the genre. As a music fan, this renaissance has been incredibly entertaining to follow, as it feels like there’s a new R&B artist or project popping up every month to take over the zeitgeist. Sudan Archives’ debut album, Athena, feels like it just might be one of those projects. Brittney Parks’s use of strings, odd production choices and off-kilter rhythms might not end up garnering the same commercial accolades as some of her contemporaries, but the best songs on this album are sure to strike a chord with fans already familiar with alternative R&B.
The intro track, “Did You Know,” is functionally similar to “Supermodel,” the absolutely fantastic opener to SZA’s 2017 instant classic, CTRL. It introduces the mental state of a woman struggling with the failures of her personal and romantic life and invokes a sense of genuine curiosity about where the album could go from here, and how the artist’s life and outlook will change. The album continues with “Confessions,” “Black Vivaldi Sonata” and “Down On Me.” With these three tracks, Parks starts to delve into the wide array of musical possibilities she’s developed with string instruments. Somehow, her concoctions of these string instruments, old-school, hip-hop adjacent drums, and electronic experimentation work insanely well. To top it all off, Parks delivers one high-quality vocal performance after another. The fun continues on “Green Eyes,” “Iceland Moss” and “Coming Up.” Here, we see Parks leaning more heavily on her vocal ability, and while the production remains excellent, it becomes more sparse and takes a back seat to the lyrics and impressive vocal runs.
Unfortunately, Athena starts to run out of steam after “House of Open Tuning II.” The style remains similar, and Parks is able to finish the album without losing focus or veering off into any other directions, but it loses the spark that made the first half so much more interesting (aside from “Limitless,” which is excellent). Tracks like “Glorious” have strong elements, such as the string parts and other great features, but lack the sense of completeness and thorough execution that songs like “Down on Me,” nailed. Another example is “Stuck.” This one-minute snippet is gorgeous and has such great potential; it honestly could’ve been a fantastic closer with the right lyrical content. While the sour taste left by the last 15 minutes is tough to ignore, Athena is a solid debut for Sudan Archives and is likely to followed by more thought-provoking, left-field R&B as her career continues to evolve.