Arca – Kick ii, iii, iiii & iiiii
Last week, Arca did the unthinkable. The Venezuelan avant-pop producer released four entire albums consecutively, with little to no warning in between, in the span of a week on XL Recordings. The albums, Kick ii, iii, iiii had been teased in various capacities over the past month, all announced for a December 3rd release. In reality, the albums would arrive a day apart from November 30th, while Kick iiiii arrived out of the blue that weekend. It’s a feat unheard of in the machinery of the music industry, perhaps matched in audacity only by Beyoncé’s surprise drops or Taylor Swift’s re-recording of her entire catalogue. But with Arca, it’s less a defiance of industry standards and more just her being herself. When she unleashed Kick i in 2019, it was clear that she was entering into a new phase of being. A kick is after all, one of the first signs of new life. Think back to 2015’s Mutant and the string of Jesse Kanda collaborations. Or her self-titled LP on which she used her voice for the first time, putting her name in the mouths of artists like FKA Twigs and Kanye West. You will see a very different Arca. Those early works blurred the lines of genre just as Arca at that stage blurred the lines of everything from gender to species. In many ways, this experimentation was a manifestation of Arca’s experimentation on herself. The music has always been intrinsic to the body, for Arca the experience being one and the same. With each rebirth, we heard it first. It’s why she speaks about her music by way of Freudian or Lacanian psychoanalytic language; often lofty contextual manifestos that draw on social and queer theory in an attempt to describe the lived the experience. For Arca, that experience is anything but straightforward. Following her coming out as a non-binary trans woman in 2018, Kick i began to reveal an Arca more settled, or rather more in tune, with the multitude of selves that make up the ‘she.’ It makes sense then that the Kick series is referred to as a ‘cycle.’ There is no definitive beginning or end, but rather an elliptical exploration into the multiplicities that inform Arca’s identity. It’s an exercise she has touched on before, albeit microscopic in scale to this. 2013’s &&&&& challenged the convention of the ‘mixtape’ by presenting itself as a seamless, twenty-five minute epic on which fourteen short, violent outbursts of grime, dub and glitch crashed into each other. It was the first suggestion of Arca’s penchant for maximalism not as effect but modality, an inherently queer approach to ‘more is more’ that finds itself occupied with the notion of infinite potentialities.
Each of the four new entries to the Kick Cycle centre around one of the multiplicities that make up Arca, spanning her central themes of desire, sexuality, otherness and spirituality. Sonically, each one grows from facets of Arca’s initial proposal on Kick i. Kick ii is the closest she has come to a fully realised reggaeton album since slowly finding her way into the style. It’s a style that lends itself well to Arca’s instinct for sonic overdrive, with relentless dembow rhythms and a heat that is only intensified with decay and industrial bass. Lethargy feels most telling of this quality, a track that by its end feels genuinely humid and claustrophobic. Reggaeton also allows room for Arca to explore her pop sensibilities in a language as fluid as herself. It’s easy to forget what a skilled writer she is amidst her more ambiguous work. Tracks like the strip-club anthem Rakata and Tiro display her knack for earworm hooks while Luna Llena recalls the opera of Reverie and serves as a reminder of her ability to craft truly stunning melodies. Kick ii’s final act hints toward the rest of the cycle, making room for Kick iii’s club dystopia. Instantly less distinct, more violent in its approach, Kick iii is the side of Arca we are most familiar with. There’s more industrial chaos here, beats decayed into near nothingnesses and manic machine sounds that spin and grate in the resulting vacuum. Full of demented vogue beats and crashes, it’s like she takes what she just made on Kick ii and throws it into a blender disguised as a gay club. On Bruja, Señorita and the hyperpop informed Ripples she becomes queen of this club, spitting bars like “did I stutter, hear me roar” over heavy beats and twisted synths. Skullqueen plays out like a trance track played at 100x its actual speed, racing through itself and becoming a blur until it slows into a strange computerised lullaby. Arca has always been able to syncopate quite like no one else, making some sense (however vague) out of apparent chaos. On Rubberneck she does the seemingly impossible with juxtaposing tempos, rhythms and melodies that should result in a mess but instead sound revelatory in succession.
Kick iiii and iiiii are markedly different in tone, gravitating away from the propulsive energy of its predecessors by travelling into the soul dimensions of Arca. It’s a side that she has hinted at before, perhaps up until this point most significantly on Arca. Kick iiii finds itself in the void with simple chord progressions and heavily processed vocals, slowed down and filtered into incantations that conjure a distinct aura of spirituality and cosmic vastness. This album also carries the majority of collaborations between the four, and on tracks like Witch featuring No Bra and the gorgeous Alien Inside featuring Shirley Manson, Arca uses her collaborators to voice more of her multiplicities, expanding Arca beyond Arca herself. Elsewhere, there’s hints of witch-house on Lost Woman Found and Queer featuring Planningtorock, and perhaps most surprisingly touches of alt-rock on tracks Hija and Boquifloja.
Kick iiiii is more celestial still, burrowing into Arca’s core like nothing quite before it. Meditative and introspective, the music here takes the shape of careful, considered manipulations and explorations into melody and space. There’s a solitude not often heard from her, a gentle peacefulness that treads carefully across each track. The results are gorgeous, lush soundscapes on which some of Arca’s signature motifs are given room to unfold rather than being smashed into each other and the pieces blended. Ether is a simple piano aria, while Fireprayer and Estrogen take shamisen like string refrains and throw them into blossoming ambient spaces. If Estrogen sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The triumphant string reprise of Mequetrefe was sampled in Arca’s remix of Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s Rain On Me earlier this year, and in the context of Kick iiiii that track becomes increasingly more coherent. Sanctuary featuring Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and the brilliant Crown play as spoken word manifestos that share Arca’s deepest ruminations. “How could she flip it all upside down?” she inquires pensively over a sample of a blade slicing through flesh on Crown, leaving us to ponder the exact same thing about her.
In its entirety, the Kick Cycle is an extensive self-portrait that fixates on themes of transformation, alienation and duality, an in-depth autopsy by Arca on herself. At times it’s exhaustive, but there’s something to be said about listening through the whole thing from beginning to end. Of course this is not necessary, but the experience is like the ultimate form of what Arca reached for with &&&&&; an odyssey into the self at it’s most self-actualised moment in time. Traversing the entire landscape of her influences and musical interests, the Kick Cycle triumphs through Arca at her most instinctual. The sheer volume of work here is immense, but everything feels incredibly natural. It puts the sensational release strategy of these records into perspective; Arca was just following her instinct. It just happens to be one that guides her to preternatural levels of awareness, and it’s a gift that we get to experience this transcendence with her.