Arca's 'KICK' Cycle Is an Explosive Exploration of Her Multidimensionality
Published Dec 03, 2021As a nonbinary trans woman raised in Caracas, Venezuela — at the height of social unrest — and suburban Connecticut, Arca (aka Alejandra Ghersi) is no stranger to existing in between worlds.
Since the 2012 breakthrough of her Stretch EPs she has played in the fertile chaos of liminality, straddling possibilities beyond binaries with ease. In her visual collaborations with transhumanist artist Frederik Heyman, for example (see the music video for "Prada/Rakata"), esoteric symbolism meets CGI latex in fusions of human and machine. Her reconceptions of gender, genre, language, physicality, and erotic expression coexist in a transgressive multiverse where nothing is out of the question. Her music lives here, too.
Though she is known for helping produce Yeezus, collaborating with artists like FKA twigs and Björk, and posing for portraits for Calvin Klein, the essence of Arca's creative mission is made most apparent elsewhere. Following positive reception of her 2020 album KiCK i (including a Grammy nomination), she released an LP composed entirely of remixes of the track "Riquiqui" generated by the AI software Bronze. Last year she released a single called "@@@@@" which clocked in at 62 minutes. Her contributions to Philippe Parreno's installation in the MoMA lobby — a technological entity named "Echo" who responds to stimuli ranging from movements of the public to cloud coverage outside the building — have expanded into an online project (echo.world) which allows anyone to tune into the dreamscape of live AI technology.
She has a vast community of online followers who call themselves "Mutants" and, in 2015, she was banned from Instagram for art created with Jesse Kanda for her single "Vanity," in which a cyborgian human is depicted with anatomically correct genitalia. Xen, the "genderless being" that shaped her 2014 album of the same name, was not just a character Arca made up. It was an aspect of her identity which she once used to sign off journal entries.
For Arca, fluid embodiment, category defiance, and the merging of dissonant worlds are more than abstract concepts. Her work exists deliberately beyond the margins of what can be neatly categorized.
The five-record KICK cycle also refuses to be reduced by a lens of linearity. A press release explains that Arca's follow-ups to KiCK i are not sequels, but fractal-like "expansions." Each is intended as a self-contained and totally unique world within a larger multidimensional self-portrait.
The first of these new fractals forays into familiar territory, further developing the avant-electro-meets-reggaetón universe Arca started building with KiCK i. Sung primarily in Ghersi's native Spanish, KICK ii manages symmetry and catchiness despite its descents into the bizarre. Gravelly purrs and the sounds of blades sharpening collide with robotic heartbeats and the crackling of flames. Even at her most accessible, Arca refuses to paint from a predictable palette. But for all her experimentation and chaotic tangents, it is clear in KICK ii that she is acutely aware of the balance necessary to build a bop.
The record is nothing if not danceable, although the territory it covers varies. In "Born Yesterday," Arca and Sia pull off anthemic pop. On "Lula Llena," which translates into "Full Moon," eerie otherworldly musings are subdued by a hypnotic dancefloor beat on the cusp of dissolution, while "Araña" invites listeners to tune into something resembling the soundtrack to a video game gone wrong.
If KICK ii keeps things weird while remaining approachable, KicK iii practically dares listeners to come closer. The opener "Bruja" makes it clear from the get-go: Arca will not cater to those easily spooked out of her turbulent cyborgian utopia. "Hush it while I lick my bloody claws," Arca instructs. "Did I stutter? Hear me roar." An aggressive rhythmic pulse drives the 12-track album, which harks back to Arca's roots in underground dance music. She bends and breaks down structural formalities, letting echoes and aberrations create warped containers for incendiary sonic layering. There are moments which approach the lucidity of pop, such as in "Señorita," the record's punchy lyrical centerpiece, and "Joya," which closes iii on a note of all-encompassing peace. For the most part, though, the album bears little narrative consistency—only expansions and distillations of sound which create an ambience so overpowering it is inescapable.
We then enter the eye of the storm. kick iiii swaps cacophony for the serene comfort of atmospheric subtlety. Songs like "Esuna" grace us with raw orchestral elements which are seldom found in Arca's work. While "Whoresong" sees Arca describe her cyclical rebound from hardship and the "bloodlust for beauty" which guides her, "Witch," a collaboration with No Bra, recites a hypnotic incantation and meditates loosely on Kristeva's "abject" over a stripped-down piano melody. In "Queer," Arca and Planningtorock ode LGBTQ+ resilience, singing of the "tears of fire" inherent to the struggle in a sea of celestial sound.
By KiCK iiiii, we are in truly subdued territory. An avant-classical journey into quieter realms, it privileges instrumental detail and tender lyricism over rhythmic intensity. In fact, the record is largely stripped of percussion. Even at its most upbeat, it is reminiscent of the sublimity of Aphex Twin, reminding listeners of the influences which shaped Arca's earliest musical ventures. The KICK anthology is an intergalactic escapade with occasionally violent pit-stops, and iiiii signifies our landing on a planet where peace is possible. One can practically hear birds chirping in the distance.
If the KiCK cycle is an ambitious attempt to make Arca's multidimensionality as human/artist/machine tangible in the formation of a musical universe, the result is neither fully cohesive nor flawless. Her apparent artistic worldview begs the question, though: is it supposed to be?
After all, the anthology began last year with the track "Nonbinary," in which Arca takes wry stabs at those who are distressed by her sovereign ambiguity. Arca seems uninterested in guiding us from a starting point to a definitive destination. Instead, she invites us to explore layers of being with her in a descent/ascent that is constantly both departing and arriving.
KICK ii, iii, iiii, and iiiii demonstrate Arca's prowess in multiple worlds, as she curses in English and laments in Spanish, oscillating between softness and grit, symphonic realness and grating distortion. The records' stand-out moments are almost exclusively moments: a glitch which grows to an arc, a sudden instance of sharp contrast, or a verbal assertion of badassery from Arca herself. KICK lacks a stable throughline, but it is perhaps the possibility of holding many discordant throughlines at once that drives Arca. The albums paint a self-portrait, and no human, no matter how cyborgian, is composed of parts which can be perfectly consolidated.
As a fully-formed whole, KICK is vibrant if not somewhat scattered. As a jumping-off point for more fractal-like expansions, though, it is explosive, with potential only really conceivable to Arca herself. (XL)