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3 December 2021

In Arca’s Kick series, the electronic artist builds a whole new universe

The Venezuelan musician's three new albums are pulsing, intense – and liberating.

By Elliot Hoste

Arca is many things. She’s a vocalist and a performer; a songwriter, record producer and instrumentalist. And she excels when the different portions of her talent work as one. Each of her projects is a study in world building. Like a film director or video game developer, Arca – real name Alejandra Ghersi – meticulously constructs an entire universe for and from her art.

The 2020 album KiCk i (pronounced “Kick One”) was the first instalment in Arca’s Kick universe. Now, Arca reintroduces us to it with the simultaneous release of KICK ii, KicK iii and kick iiii. “It is time to enter the end,” whispers a disembodied voice over spectral wails and splices on “Doña”, the opening track of KICK ii. The soundscape recalls video games, specifically the first-person combat variety: guttural ripping noises that mimic blades cutting through flesh, and deep droning pulses (the kind of noise that might occur when a character regenerates after death). Closing track “Andro” sounds as if it’s pulled from the title screen of the arcade game Tekken. These sonic bookends remind the listener that the Kick world can be intense and combative, but also liberating.

Despite the brash opening, KICK ii is essentially a reggaeton record. On “Tiro” Arca pays homage to her native Venezuela, referring to herself as “Mami Reggaeton” in the track’s intro and listing names of various Venezuelan states over an aggressive beat. “Prada” and “Rakata”, originally released as one combined track in early November, possess the same Latin flair. “Prada” is Arca’s call to arms as a trans woman (“¿Donde ‘tan las transformistas?” or “Where are my transformistas?”). “Rakata” is the hot-footed, spritely cousin to “Prada’s” spacier vibrations.

[see also: On Prioritise Pleasure, Self Esteem turns mainstream pop into an act of rebellion]

“Muñecas” is reminiscent of Arca’s more accessible production work, in particular FKA twigs’ 2013 project EP2. “Lethargy” hints at a more traditional pop structure with a melodic, hook-laden vocal refrain, but immediately swerves away from the idea with a final 30 seconds of stuttering yowls. It’s “Born Yesterday”, the penultimate track, that acts as the record’s front-of-shop, big pop moment, mostly due to the assistance of the Top 40 crooner Sia. Her expansive voice makes sense on the ballad’s roomy production – but following the backlash from her 2021 feature film Music, heavily criticised for its portrayal of autism, Sia’s presence feels incongruous on a record series that’s all about building an inclusive world.

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If Sia’s appearance makes KICK ii the “accessible” chapter in the series, then KicK iii is a stark reminder of Arca’s raucously intense craft. Billed as the alternative club offering, the front half of the record is essentially impenetrable. The experimentation of opener “Bruja” is stolid and dense; “Skullqueen” is jagged and confused.

But by the second half of the record, the fog begins to clear. “Señorita” is the hip hop-inflected antidote to KicK iii’s earlier obscurity. It’s a defiant stomper of a track with a clear shot to Arca’s detractors: “Not sure who you think you’re dealing with?” snarls Arca, over punching electro beats.

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KicK iii is conceptually rich. The track “Electra Rex” references two famous psychoanalytic ideas, the Oedipal and Electra complexes: the young boy that hates his father and wishes to have sex with his mother; the young girl that hates her mother and wants to have sex with her father. In an Instagram post, Arca said that “Electra Rex” is “the union of masculine and feminine. It kills both mother and father and has sex with itself.” The symbolic killing of both parents, Arca believes, gives space to trans and non-binary identities. But the song itself does not hold up to this grandiose narrative, its brief two minutes indistinguishable from other tracks on the record. The gulf between the record’s concept and execution makes a lot of KicK iii seem like filler.

But such a gulf is nowhere to be seen on the next instalment of the series. kick iiii is the record that reckons with Arca’s identity in the most compelling way, both lyrically and sonically. The glittering, blissed-out euphoria of “Xenomorphgirl” hints at an identity in flux with constant undulations. Deriving from the Greek for “strange form”, the title of the track also references the species of mutant in Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise and a popular 1990 video game also called Xenomorph. The sparse piano and robotic vocals on “Witch” are quietly arresting, while Susanne Oberbeck of No Bra delivers one of the most memorable guest performances. “This witch is so seductive,” she drawls at the beginning of the track, “elective and protective.”

“Alien Inside”, another reference to Scott’s franchise, features Shirley Manson of the rock band Garbage. Manson delivers a spoken monologue over throbbing guitars, recalling the “first time you recognised the alien inside/In the face of abject misery”. Here, the inner alien is an empowering force, one that can conquer unhappiness. Across these three tracks, and kick iiii as a whole, Arca reclaims the monstrous form and positions it as a route to freedom. In Arca’s Kick world, monsters are not the villains of the story, but symbols of hope and change for those of trans identity.

KiCk i was the initial building block of a universe that, Arca argued, was free from the limitations of conventional gender identity, and on these new instalments she expands that vision. The decision to issue three full-length records is questionable: Arca’s music is known to be rich but formidable and severe electronica that takes time to fully digest. But Arca – ambitious and determined – has achieved what she set out to do: create a vibrant, pulsing, self-actualising world, a world of many things.

[see also: Radiohead’s Kid A Mnesia is the natural soundtrack for an age of fear]