Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Arca KiCk i

Arca begins her new album like we’ve never heard her before: straightforward and confrontational, arrogant and assured. “I do what I want to do when I want to do it,” she sings, her voice dripping metallic. “Nonbinary” is steely and cool; the beat bends and then ricochets into sharp and decisive shots. “Who do you think I am?” she asks. “It’s not who you think you’re dealing with, no.” It’s all declarative statements delivered with a maniacal smile, a dead-eyed stare. It’s an introductory monologue that sets up Arca as unfuckwithable. Her music has often been abrasive, but rarely has it been this direct.

Over the last decade, Alejandra Ghersi has built up a discography that’s constantly shifting and changing and has always been a little hard to grasp. Her music reflected dysphoria. The songs were dense and uncomfortable. The figures on her previous album covers were elegantly-rendered misshapen blobs that presented an alluring ugliness that one couldn’t look away from. The Arca on the cover of her new album KiCk i is, in contrast, sleek, modern, refined — rebuilt and ready to dominate. That’s also what Arca sounds like on KiCk i. The music feels like an escape, a chaotic celebration. KiCk i is the coronation of Arca as a pop star.

Ghersi’s first run of albums and mixtapes were overloaded with ideas and beautiful sounds. It was music that was easy to respect and admire but was sometimes hard to listen to. That was part of the point — Arca’s music is purposefully challenging — but KiCk i is compellingly relistenable. It’s Arca’s version of a pop album, and it’s delightfully weird and satisfying. It doesn’t sacrifice the oddity that Arca has cultivated over the years — instead, it enhances it, maybe makes it a little more palatable to the average listener but always to rejuvenating ends. Since transitioning between her 2017 album and now, Ghersi has grown more confident in herself and, by extension, also grown more confident in not being herself. She’s freer to adopt different personas throughout KiCk i, try on new and ever-cascading modes of being.

A few months ago, as a precursor to KiCk i, Arca released a 62-minute song called “@@@@@.” It was essentially a mixtape presented in a single package that made it difficult to pick out specific moments. It’s a format that Arca has a history with, but “@@@@@” felt like the cleanest possible version of that form, an extraterrestrial radio broadcast that was filled with playful sounds and degraded energy. It married the experimentalism of Arca’s past with the beginning of her future.

There were already hints of Arca’s more accessible direction taking shape on her 2017 self-titled LP. That was the first time she put her vocals front-and-center, but she treated her voice as something reverential, capable of only expressing mourning. Songs like “Piel” and “Desafío” are compelling and beautifully sad; they tap into something entirely different than the rush of glee that pervades KiCk i. There are only fleeting moments of that same sadness on KiCk i, most notably on closer “No Queda Nada,” a syrupy and warm note to go out on. Most of KiCk i is thrillingly cathartic, a restless mess of noise and forward momentum.

The album often sounds like dialing through the radio and getting stuck between stations — or more apt for Arca’s generation, letting two YouTube videos play on top of each other in separate tabs. Songs fade in and out, collapse on each other, get all mixed up in a jumble. They feel like half-remembered singles from alternate reality Top 40 charts, evoking a nostalgia for something you can’t quite place. In the case of “Machote,” that feeling is literal: It incorporates elements of Latin Dreams’ reggaeton song “Quiero Una Chica.” But songs like “Mequetrefe” and “KLK” both also have this quality — they’re apocalyptic and sharp, jutting angles and pulsing grooves layered in a dizzying stack.

All of this soupy noise is intentional. “We all have multiple personalities. Rather than causing panic, I think maybe that could cause some relief,” Arca said in an interview earlier this year. “There was a clear intention [on the album] to allow every self to express itself. Not to decide how much air time each self would get, but to allow for modulation between them in a spontaneous way. There is no such thing as normal.”

KiCk i never settles down into anything resembling normal, even though it’s by far the Arca album with the most easy entry points. It’s all over the place in the best way, covering a lot of sonic ground: booming cathedral pop on “Calor,” neon sweat on early standout “Time,” chirpy club music on “Rip The Slit.” Arca uses the album to try out a ton of personalities, channeling different modes of her so-called “self-states” that are constantly in conversation with each other. It often sounds like Arca is yelling at herself, every synapse firing off inside her mind: telling herself to constantly be better, be stronger, do more. This battle is actualized in the music video for “Nonbinary,” as two different Arcas scream at each other in a fiery arena. On “Riquiqui,” she shouts at herself across a void: “Regenerated girl degenerate to generate heat in the light/ Love in the face of fear/ Fear in the face of God/ Thinking it would never end — a break off,” she sings, words tumbling out in a moment of sloppy transcendence.

Arca’s voice throughout all of this is constantly morphing. You’d be forgiven for thinking there are additional featured guests on KiCk i that aren’t credited. Arca never sounds exactly like herself, or rather she sounds like so many different versions of herself. And in between all these multitudes are the actual guests. Arca went through her Rolodex of collaborators and picked only the best. We have Björk singing in Spanish on the massively operatic “Afterwards,” SOPHIE offering up a gothic floridness on “La Chiqui,” Rosalía serving as a reggaeton hypewoman on “KLK”; even the British producer Shygirl ascends to the same level as her big-font counterparts on the gloriously unhinged “Watch.” The middle stretch of the album where all of these collaborations bunch up is certainly a flex on Arca’s part, and what a flex it is.

But Arca is just as good on her own, especially when she embraces the theatricality and multidimensionality of her music. “Mequetrefe” is my favorite song on here, an immediate pick-me-up that can make one feel like the baddest bitch in the room. Named after a pejorative that Arca grew up hearing in her native Venezuela, she reclaims the insult and paints a portrait of someone who just doesn’t give a shit, an idealized version of herself that can take whatever nasty words are thrown her way and turn them into sass. “Ella no toma taxi, que la vean, que la vean en la calles (She doesn’t take taxi, to be seen, seen on the streets),” Arca chirps. “Tiene la personalidad (She’s got the personality)/ Y mira su pasito, que le da igualito (And look at her tiny steps, she don’t care).” The song sounds like prancing down a sidewalk in heels, each click on the ground another burst of confidence to ward off the negative attention. It builds an impenetrable armor, a perfect example of the kind of immense power that Arca’s triumphant mutability can wield.

If Arca follows through on her plan, KiCk i will be the first in a series of four planned releases in an overarching KiCk series. As she explained in a recent interview, this is the bold pop version of the ideas that have been rattling around in her head over the last few years. Arca says there’s also an even crazier album in the works; there’s one that’s tender and vocal-forward; there’s another that’s piano only, no vocals. Arca explained the concept behind all these different releases like this: “When a child is brought into the world, kicking is the first manifestation of its will. So I see it as a metaphor for individuation, for choosing to differentiate yourself. It’s a rallying cry to kick against categorization. If it’s oppressive, kick against it.”

What a first kick this album is. It’s really a revelation, an artist sanding down all of her rough edges into something that’s somehow even sharper and more distinctive than she was before. There’s a chance we’ll never hear Arca in this mode again. Taking the rest of her discography into account, she’s never really been complacent with staying in one place. Maybe the appeal of being so accessible won’t hold her attention. She might be off trying new and different things. But for the 40 minutes that we have on KiCk i, she makes for a fearsome pop star.

KiCk i is out 6/26 via XL Recordings. Pre-order it here.