Arca’s Rebellion Against Music and Life

Arca’s Rebellion Against Music and Life

Arca’s Rebellion Against Music and Life

How the experimental artist made one of the year’s most defiant pop records. 

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On the cover of her new album, KiCk i, the Venezuelan experimental artist and producer Arca is wrapped in gauzy white underwear, the soft fabric across her skin in stark juxtaposition to the blade-like bionic prosthetics she’s wearing on her arms and legs. She’s bare but also armed, vulnerable yet gladiatorial.

The image, taken by the Spanish photographer Carlota Guerrero, captures something of the album’s tensions—the way Arca stitches together industrial blasts, blankets of glitch noise, and sudden waves of glossy pop into songs that mutate by the second. The shards of sound that she uses are often incongruous and alarmingly divergent, so much so that each change is like an unexpected splash of cold water to the face. But KiCk i isn’t simply a study in contrasts; it’s a rebellion against convention in both music and life. The project is a living, breathing example of how Arca has found a way to be so much at once, committed only to pushing deeper into her mind-bending artistry.

Transformations—both major, miraculous ones and steady, gradual shifts—are central to Arca’s slinking path through music. She began as a bit of a cipher, dwelling in the underground corners of the Internet and releasing sonic experiments on Soundcloud in the early 2010s. Then she caught the attention of Kanye West, who enlisted her to contribute production to 2013’s Yeezus. As she gained more recognition for her albums—2014’s Xen, 2015’s Mutant, 2017’s Arca—she became something of a secret weapon of the avant-pop set. Her name sprang up in the credits for albums by Björk, FKA Twigs, Kelela, and Frank Ocean. Arca, who started using they/them pronouns in 2018 and opened up about her transition in 2019, evolved musically with each new record, testing vocals, serpentine structures, and unpredictable production work. She launched conceptual work as well: 2020’s @@@@@ was a 62-minute track conceived as a transmission from a character named Diva Experimental, and last year she debuted Mutant;Faith, a four-day performance art piece at The Shed in Manhattan.

Still, given her past collaborators, it’s not all that surprising that she’d eventually move her career under a pop spotlight, and KiCk i is that leap forward. With this latest album, Arca has slipped into the deepest layers of popular music and changed its source code without giving in to its structural traditions. She’s also brought along some of her contemporaries and previous collaborators: Björk, the Scottish artist Sophie, the Spanish singer Rosalía, the London DJ Shygirl. And while the album doesn’t sound much like the approachable mainstream, it’s occasionally entangled in the larger problems of pop music, a risk any foray into the genre would likely have faced. KiCk i is loaded with some of Arca’s most technical work, but these sonic flexes can feel more impenetrable, even messier, than her prior releases. Certain moments also seem to counter the radical impulses Arca has become known for, yet these contradictions end up shaping an album that’s as complex, free, and unyielding as Arca and her uncompromising artistic method.

The opener, “Nonbinary,” is a manifesto for Arca’s current mindset: propulsive, salacious, and proud. A distant smattering of thuds and snares trickle into the arrangement before she darts in and drops heated spoken-word verses, her as voice smooth and fluid as molten lava. “I do what I wanna do when I wanna do it / Bitch I got the bags to prove it /Hips to move it around and make shapes,” she says sharply before hitting the kicker: “It’s French tips wrapped ’round a dick.” It’s a show-stopper of a song that marks a departure from her earlier music; she started experimenting with vocals only later in her career. To some, the new lyricism might seem too direct or obvious, but it exemplifies the unfiltered approach Arca has taken here. She’s unafraid to use her words to demand and set the terms for her visibility, all while her community and her fans cheer her on.

The beat skips along and then speeds up; Arca’s voice becomes amorphous and robotic. She sings at one point, “Ask me about my luck / Yeah, I’ve been lucky / And I’ve been unlucky / It’s both.” The declaration is subtle, but it hints at the challenges she’s faced as well as the breaks she’s had throughout her career. It might even evoke a recent social media debate about her privileged upbringing, which Arca addressed somewhat clumsily on Twitter by saying she hadn’t seen “$1” from her family “since college graduation.” Regardless, Arca doesn’t shy away from the truths she represents. She exposes her complexities and, in the process, refuses to exist in marginalized, limited spaces or adhere to simplistic binaries. She takes on heteronormative gender roles and subverts ideas of desire frequently. “I want a male that knows how to touch me,” she purrs in an androgynous Auto-Tuned voice on the electronic dreamscape “Machote.” Often, she delivers her lyrics in quick, winding twists, as on “Rip the Slit,” where she raps in a helium-high pitch, “I’ll hit you with that limp wrist / Lipstick / Slit lip / Rip slit.” Each verse unspools like a riddle, as knotty and intricate as the aspects of herself she’s putting forward.

Arca’s previous full-length, her self-titled album from 2017, was as raw and pained as an open wound, tying together queer experiences and diasporic desolation. The aims of KiCk i are decidedly different. “Rather than depicting gender dysphoria, I want to explore gender euphoria,” she told Garage magazine earlier this year. She’s chosen instead to focus on the exhilaration of queer love and the blurring of body and form that happens on the dance floor. “Calor,” which most resembles the spaciousness of Arca, is a tender ballad in which she sings about her partner, showing off a more intimate side. Later, she and Sophie kick up crackles of noise and grime on “La Chiqui,” creating the kind of pitch-black, pulsing club moment you’d want to experience with your closest friends. Both are demonstrative of the many ways in which Arca has interpreted ideas of ecstasy, but perhaps the best example is “Mequetrefe.” The title comes from a colloquial term, Arca has explained, thrown around in Venezuela at sleazy, “good-for-nothing” men. She sings about how badly she wants this kind of guy for her personal enjoyment, for a mischievous reclamation of the word, but steely synth twinkles and reggaeton percussion make the track so blissful you just want to get lost dancing in it. The sound is nostalgic, understated, and mesmerizing—just before it explodes into a firework of static and chopped up vocal loops.

Unfortunately, the depth of “Mequetrefe” doesn’t carry into “KLK,” a highly anticipated collaboration with Rosalía that’s far less moving (and even discomfiting) as the two artists trade boasts and Caribbean slang over a grim reggaeton beat. Since 2019, the Spanish-speaking music industry has boosted Rosalía to the center of reggaeton and dembow, despite the fact that she’s a white European woman experimenting with sounds created by Black people in Latin America and the Caribbean. Arca’s decision to have her lead yet another reggaeton-influenced song is a disappointment, and though it boasts contributions from the talented producer Cardopusher, “KLK” doesn’t really take the genre anywhere new. It’s a missed opportunity to acknowledge the roots of music that has clearly had an influence on Arca, and it stands out as almost regressive on such a progressively minded project.

The power of Arca’s work is its inventiveness. Cultural work that proposes new modes of expression and communication is especially important right now as people have organized to call out the lack of imagination that has continued systems of oppression and inequality for generations. KiCk i fits into a recent series of releases—some of the year’s best, in fact—from queer and nonbinary artists that defy the limits of traditional genre and form in distinct ways. Moses Sumney turned soul and R&B inside out on his 20-song masterpiece græ. Perfume Genius’s Set My Heart On Fire Immediately offered gut-wrenching portraits of intimacy when it came out in May, just a few weeks before Yves Tumor embraced off-kilter, abrasive sounds on Heaven to a Tortured Mind. It’s not exactly fair to group these artists together, given how wildly different their output has been, but what they share is a resistance to convention that creates a portal into an uncharted artistic future.

Sasha Geffen summed up their work best in the recent book Glitter Up the Dark. “I hear a refusal to force the body against its true shape,” Geffen writes. “In their slippery, confounding, and transcendent music, these artists—and the hundreds of others that join them on this path—cast off the claustrophobic molds that would keep them from themselves. Their music twists into new shapes without names, shapes that open the way into a world that lets in the light.” During her own act of letting in the light on this record, Arca is fearless. She lays bare her multiplicity and her contradictions, the compelling and unflattering bits, celebrating it all. The title of the final song, “No Queda Nada” (“There Is Nothing Left”), is a love letter to her partner that rejoices in how full and self-realized she is in this moment of her career. “Nothing left,” she sings. “Except that which you see.”

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