Album Review: Arca – KiCk i

[XL; 2020]

Within the homogenized mass of modern pop music, few artists can claim true singularity. But, after a decade of pushing the boundaries of what pop music could be, one individual has consistently proven to be that extraordinary talent. What do often-deemed musical luminaries, Björk, FKA Twigs, Frank Ocean, and Kanye West, have in common? They’ve all at one time or another, utilized the talents of Venezuelan virtuoso and queen of all provocateurs: Arca. Now she kicks in the door of this conceptual singularity once and for all on the ultra-confident, aptly titled KiCk i.

Across four studio albums, multiple EPs, numerous iconic DJ sets, and contributions to several landmark records as a producer, Arca’s work has proven to be the ultimate manifestation of the undying desire to express oneself. Since the beginning, Arca’s self has been interwoven, diffused, and modulated into every fibre of her art, and KiCk i is the pinnacle of her self-reflection.

In an interview with GARAGE back in April, Arca maintained that she is “an ecosystem of minor self-states without being stripped of the dignity of being a whole.” Her latest project continues to traverse this identity shift – which started with her 2017 self-titled record – not with hesitancy or timidness, but with an unflinching musical confidence and a full embrace of her ever-evolving image.

“Nonbinary” is an appropriately explosive way to open an album of this topical nature. With bouncing bass undulating through listeners’ bodies, the album’s lead single sees Arca spit a few bars, fronting up to her haters with as much gusto as your favorite emcee: “I do what I wanna do when I wanna do it,” she opens. “I don’t give a fuck what you think… Go ahead, speak for yourself… Cast the first stone…” As Arca menacingly flashes a middle finger from all angles, she displays a statement of human complexity, which she shall not be stripped of: “I can be friendly or I can be fake / I can be real or I can lick a taste / What’s it gonna take? / I can be sexy or I could be sad / Act bad just to be sweet.” Motivated to simultaneously eschew and embody all her identities, past, present, and future, Arca reflects this desire through a diverse palette of sounds that defines and redefines what we listeners should expect from her. Though it may not the display the most inviting demeanor, on “Nonbinary” Arca articulates intent and emotions with such clarity that she jams the door wide open for listeners to indulge in her dizzying world of visual flair and pummeling musical affairs that follow on the album. 

Operating through this lens of progressive pop aggression and danceability, KiCk i is a stark velocity shift from her meditative, ballad-driven 2017 record. This is best shown in cuts likeKLK” and “Rip the Slit”, which intimidate with their bravado. This one-two combo punch sends a strike to the stomach that will not cause you pain, but get you dancing feverishly. “KLK”, the most intoxicating listen on KiCk i, is reggaeton from another dimension, and the esteemed Rosalía makes a perfect guest appearance. Here, the drums are warped and worn with metallic colors, while samples of emptying bullet shells percuss with unfathomable fervor. 

The following “Rip the Slit” is a thrashing drum-and-bass-driven cut, with Arca in a high-pitched, manipulated voice, sounding more confident and explosive than ever as she relentlessly repeats “I rip the slit.” With the track splintering out into various, maniacal directions, it’s clear Arca has every intention of obliterating what we’ve come to know her sound to be.

Though some may be put off that KiCk i is not the gorgeous art-pop masterstroke Arca was, the core of this new record remains tender. In fact, with tracks like “Afterwards” and the closer “No Queda Nada”, we see her reach inside her more daring and emotive side, resulting in moments that are equal parts heart-crushing and mesmerizing. 

“Mequetrefe” represents the profound moment where these two modes meet. Led by a bouncy reggaeton beat that glitches out into a deconstructed club banger, the danceable chaos of “Mequetrefe” is permeated by a delicate, Aphex Twin-lite string section that delivers a sense of melancholy. In just 141 seconds, Arca coaxes out a wide array of emotions few artists could manage. “La Chiqui”, featuring SOPHIE, also witnesses this tonal clash, but to a lesser extent. Overpowering with grinding drum samples, industrial-sized power electronics, and Arca’s frenzied “mineo” refrain, this track’s wonky energy is brazen, yet just enough room is left for feathery synthesizers and Arca’s faint operatic voice to soar in the background.

As Arca harmonizes both jolting energy and hushed beauty into a single aura, it’s hard not to pound the desk and pin her as the future of pop music. But then reality sets in: the sensory overload she tends to serve up will continue to confound many – even if this is her most accessible and celebratory record to date. Needless to say, her presentation of what she describes as “gender euphoria,” provides the perfect blueprint to a more healthy, embracing, and confident exploration of the concept and conversation of gender and identity in popular music.