Madame Butterfly

Sasha Geffen on Arca’s KiCk i

Arca. Photo: Hart Lëshkina.

FOR MANY WISHFUL LISTENERS, Arca sounded trans long before she publicly identified as such. Even if the Venezuelan-born producer and vocalist hadn’t named her debut album, Xen (2014), after a feminine alter-ego she’d cultivated since childhood, the music, which writhed and oozed like a pupating insect, would have invited such a reading: It stirred with unstable and viscous electronic tones, hinting at identity in flux. Mutant, in 2015, followed suit; both were tellingly illustrated by computer-generated images of ambiguous bodies spilling, tumorous, from their own skins. Before she changed her name and pronouns, Alejandra Ghersi made synthesized music that sounded out the longing to become.

The hallmarks of Arca’s early years included detuned synthesizer patches, notes which sagged off of their true pitch, and smeared, distorted vocals that yielded only glimpses of language. In 2017, a self-titled album unsheathed her voice for a series of songs that folded lust and death into the same full-throated howls. She inched toward ripe pop pleasure on Arca, especially with “Reverie” and “Desafio,” but ultimately retreated into the abject loneliness that pervades the bulk of her catalog. With her fourth LP, KiCk i, Arca plunges into modes she had only flirted with before. It is the first of her albums to embrace excitement and joy, to step out from of isolated melancholy into a sense of communal belonging. Still, on the album’s cover, she stands alone, her feet strapped into the metallic hooves she first wore in the 2015 music video for “Reverie,” her hands gripping a pair of prosthetic claws—a cyborg figure, armed and ready.

In the music, at least, Arca is not alone. KiCk i features a handful of guest artists, from her longtime mentor and collaborator Björk, whose voice peals in Spanish across the luminous “Afterwards,” to the London DJ Shygirl, whose measured raps intertwine with an unsteady alarm tone on “Watch.” Songs with Rosalía and Sophie, respectively, bookend the album’s most riotous number, “Rip the Slit.” Rosalía’s feature, “KLK,” is an adrenalized duet primed to froth up a dance floor, while the latter, “La Chiqui,” boasts vocals and unmistakably clanging production from the UK artist. Each interlocutor shakes loose something new in Arca’s compositions, lending fresh friction to her sound as it rattles and glints with invigorating chaos.

Arca. Photo: Alex Raduan.

These busy tonal parades wreath moments of beautiful defiance when Arca’s voice cuts directly across her stuttering beats. “I’ll hit you with that limp wrist,” she snaps on “Rip the Slit,” her sing-song delivery pitched up and processed into balloon-letter curlicues. Opening track “Nonbinary,” a sibilant spoken word piece, peaks with a challenge: “Who do you think I am? It’s not who do you think you’re dealing with, cause you’re not ‘dealing with.’ There’s no deal. It’s just real, on my side. Go ahead, speak for yourself.”

There is a certain pressure applied to trans artists to resolve messy interiorities into palatable, public-facing bites—to smooth out the tangled threads of a disobedient gender until it becomes readily decipherable by those who have always found the binary easy to obey. Rather than fall into that assimilationist trap, Arca luxuriates in the mess. She savors jagged edges and rogue effluences, splashing bold accents on off-beats on “Riquiqui,” streaking “Time” with gorgeous treble flushes. In one especially poignant moment, she repurposes “Wound,” a track from Xen. Originally a spare and gutting string piece overlaid with machine-garbled vocals, the six-year-old song, sprinkled with radio-ready hi-hats and clear, urgent lyric, has a second life as “Machote,” “Quiero todo de tu cuerpo/Quiero todo tus lamentos,” she sings, searingly—“I want all of your body. I want all of your sorrows.” A dirge blooms into a love ballad, its desire thrust skyward. 

Throughout KiCk i, Arca sings, raps, grunts, groans, and snarls; her pitch spans her natural range and then breaks off into technologically-enhanced flights, translucent petals of sound. With her iridescent shifts, Arca can be hard to pin down, which is of course the reason why her presence has never been more vivid. In cascades of rage and pleasure, by herself and with her accomplices, she shimmers, blurs, and evaporates. She does not sit still long enough to be devoured or fixed to an easily interpretable point. In this, Arca thrills, and offers an opening to other beings too restless to be named.