The experimental electronic artist releases what is essentially her "pop album;" and it's still one of the weirdest things you'll hear in 2020.
Originally published on 6/29/20.
Alejandra Ghersi, better known as Arca, has built quite a reputation for herself. Over the course of her career, Ghersi has become one of the most revered names in experimental electronic music, and for good reason – her incredible penchant for sonic world-building has resulted in endlessly enthralling music that ranges from memorably melodic to deeply disturbing (sometimes both). Her innovative and organic approach to sound design and electronic composition is nothing if not one-of-a-kind; rarely has electronic music sounded so alien and yet simultaneously so human.
Growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, Ghersi began creating and releasing music as a teenager under the name Nuuro, where she created catchy synthpop with elements of experimental soundplay. At the time, she began receiving quite a bit of attention from the local music press. Unfortunately, this attention was too much for her to emotionally handle, and before long she completely abandoned her Nuuro project and, in her words, “went into a cocoon… for, like, two or three years.”
Later moving to New York and attending NYU, Ghersi took on a new name and musical direction with Arca. After releasing the twin Stretch EPs, she attracted the attention of Kanye West collaborator Matthew Williams, soon leading to production roles on the superstar rapper’s highly influential album Yeezus. Naturally, this once again blew the doors open for her career – except this time she was ready. Soon she was collaborating with FKA twigs on the experimental pop icon’s first few releases, and in 2014 put out her own debut album Xen. This record firmly established her as a fresh, talented new voice in electronic music, though some of the compositions left a lot to be desired. Thankfully Ghersi stepped up both the ambition and cohesiveness of her music the following year with her masterpiece Mutant, a sprawling sonic odyssey that stands as one of electronic music’s finest releases of the 2010s. However, in 2017, she began going in a different creative direction than before: she incorporated her singing voice into her music and focused more on balladry and emotional catharsis on her self-titled third album, giving us her darkest album yet. Since her career took off, Ghersi has also self-released several mixtapes, collaborated with other well-known artists (such as Björk, Frank Ocean, Kelela, and Rosalía), contributed to the soundtrack of Red Dead Redemption 2, and even composed the startup jingle for a Sega Genesis console remake.
On her latest album KiCk i, Ghersi updates her sound even further, encompassing more mainstream genres without sacrificing even slightly the experimental soundplay that defines the Arca name. Sickly synths, distorted percussion, mangled sound effects, and stretched samples abound on KiCk i, yet again creating a strange, idiosyncratic world of audio you won’t hear anywhere else. As an aspiring sound designer and electronic musician, Ghersi has been one of my biggest idols for quite some time; her creativity and total command of sound never cease to amaze me, and the soundplay on KiCk i is no different. It’s still a complete mystery to me just how she creates these kinds of sounds and comes up with how to put them all together. (I also love that she’s not afraid to occasionally resample herself; listening to her music and finding original sound effects here and there that she’s used before is like an Easter egg hunt for electronic music fans.)
In addition to the bizarre sonic mastery that typically dominates an Arca record, Ghersi sees fit to incorporate synthpop (“Time”), trap (“Watch,” “Machote”), and reggaeton (“Mequetrefe,” “KLK”) into these tracks, resulting in sounds she has never touched before in her music and giving us her “poppiest” record yet (though that is a relative term for Arca’s material). The range of sonic intensity across the tracklist is as wide as ever, too; we get everything from gorgeous, genuinely affecting love ballads (“Calor,” “No Queda Nada”) to frantic, absolutely manic bangers (“Rip the Slit,” “La Chíqui”). KiCk i is easily Ghersi’s most sonically diverse album to date, showcasing again just what she’s capable of.
Like the self-titled album, most of KiCk i’s lyrics are in Spanish, Ghersi’s native language. Whether it’s in Spanish or English, though – and there are lyrics in both languages, sometimes on the same track – the album’s lyrics are by turns rebellious, loving, and sensual. Opening track “Nonbinary” defiantly showcases the many facets of Ghersi’s own gender identity, decidedly unbothered by those who want to put her down. “Calor” and “No Queda Nada” are beautiful tributes to Ghersi’s boyfriend, whom she credits for helping her to feel comfortable in her own skin; these two songs in particular are some of Ghersi’s most emotionally moving work to date, both sonically and lyrically. Meanwhile, “Rip the Slit” and “La Chíqui” could easily be played in the most transgressive club on Mars, with the former’s intoxicatingly repetitive lyrics and the latter’s bizarrely violent imagery (“La Chíqui” also features vocals and production from fellow experimental electronic legend and master sound designer SOPHIE, a collaboration that I frankly needed in my life). Granted, most of my enjoyment of this album is gleaned more from the insane production than the lyrical themes, but I suppose you can chalk that up to personal taste.
Sadly, not every aspect of KiCk i fares well. There are a few tracks here that could have been fleshed out more, such as “Nonbinary,” “Mequetrefe,” “Watch,” and “Machote.” These tracks – which are all great during the runtime they get – seem to drop out prematurely, almost as if Ghersi didn’t really know how to end them. On top of that, “Time” sticks out like a sore thumb on the album; it’s a decent piece, but the clean 80s-inspired synths throughout the track don’t mesh particularly well with Ghersi’s signature sound, and it’s the one and only song on the album that sounds like this at all. Some cohesion issues also make themselves known; more than once we jump from a loud, raucous banger to a soft, melodic ballad and then back again, making the album flow less well, and consequently be less satisfying, than I would have liked. Lastly, there’s simply too much high-end frequency in the vocals on both “Calor” and “Afterwards.” Both vocal performances are fantastic, especially that of Björk on the latter track, but they can be difficult to listen to when the breathy frequencies have been turned up to 11.
As a whole, though, KiCk i stands as another reason why Arca is one of experimental electronic music’s biggest names. Even when it misses the mark, the album showcases yet again the unparalleled mastery of sound that she has been honing for her whole career. There’s nary a moment on KiCk i where the sound is anything less than stunning. Disorienting, freakish, affecting, and above all incredibly creative, KiCk i may not be Arca’s strongest album – or even necessarily her strongest project – but it’s the latest work of an auteur who will never stop dumbfounding me with her sonic world-building prowess, as well as the raw emotion she is capable of expressing in her music. May Ghersi’s career continue to grow and flourish; she truly deserves it.
Listen to KiCk i on Apple Music or Spotify below.