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Arca
KiCk i Jamie Ryder , June 29th, 2020 07:55

Having hit nothing but home runs for years, Alejandra Ghersi takes a swing at full-bore pop. It’s a surprising disappointment, finds Jamie Ryder

Full disclosure: I hang on Arca's every word. I've got .flac files of everything she's formally released, and rips of whatever she hasn't. On my streaming service of choice, she's got the most plays (top song: 'Wound', from 2014's Xen). I'm on the Instagram, the Twitter, the fans-only Discord; I watch the production sessions she broadcasts live on streaming platform Twitch, yowling and snapping my fingers at the ceiling when the beat becomes hot (and it is very frequently hot).

I'm an evangelist; I cajole and harass my long-suffering housemates, exhorting them to listen to Entrañas an especially brutal mixtape, or Sheep, a menacing DJ set-cum-runway soundtrack. The creaking, timeworn laptop I'm typing on is adorned with an official Arca sticker (the hoodies were expensive) — a logo done in scratchy and gestural block script, horror-movie style. You'll see the same longhand all over the packaging of Ghersi's latest album, KiCk i, her second for XL Recordings. The writing is at once manic and playful, the sort of chirography you'd expect to find on the walls of an old house, daubed in blood.

All considered, I thought I was exactly the sort of person for whom KiCk i was intended. It had become clear in the countdown months that it was to be Arca's most collaborative, and perhaps her most explicitly pop-oriented album. The prospect had me giddy with excitement. What was I in for as a listener? She'd done strains of pop forever, of course, but that didn't stop me itching to hear how she would bend the traditional codes of the form to her will this time around, to hear just how far she'd go.

I discussed the various possibilities with anybody that would listen. Perhaps KiCk i would reach deeper into the mournful, closely-mic'd chamber pop of 2017's self-titled album, or explore the trap territories of the doomed 2019 Frank Ocean collaboration 'Little Demon'. Maybe it'd turn to the pulverising dembow of 2014's 'Thievery', or recall the foley-esque, high-gloss chill of her work with FKA twigs. Whatever the case, I knew it would be searing and beautiful and redemptive, world hunger-solving, and all the rest.

I devoured available snippets and bits of news like the insatiable No-Face spirit from Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. I watched one clip, which saw Ghersi in club-kid makeup teasing a new song, 'Mequetrefe', over and over – a hundred times, at least. I was mesmerised; I revelled in my anticipation, gloating over the tantalising and innumerable might-bes. A new album by an all-time favourite was coming. I was soon to be fed.

It brings me no pleasure to report, then, that KiCk i falls rather short of those grand – though, I maintain, not at all unmerited – forecasts.

While it's no leap of faith, it feels uncomfortably close to one; what could and should have been a coolly assured olympic plunge is instead a remarkably ungainly near-belly-flop of an album, weirdly devoid of the dense musicality, crooked charm and sheer kinetic potency which characterise Ghersi's works to date.

A lot happens across its forty minutes, no doubt – it's an Arca project, so you can bank on a massive range of noises, all of which sound realer-than-real – but there is a curious drabness to it, a sense of lassitude or inelasticity or stagnation in the frenzy, a confounding species of anti-aesthetic which shuts down the excitable, disquisitive part of my brain; the part, that is, which Arca's other works have always activated so effortlessly. Where you can plumb the depths of artworks like Xen and Mutant for days on end, uncovering treasure upon treasure, KiCk i, I’m convinced, contains comparatively few secrets.

The album is held back in a few notable ways. There's an inadvertent messiness to it for one, which we might explain in the following terms. I get the concrete sense that Ghersi perceives herself as teetering on the edge of a proper breakthrough, one viral smash away from becoming 2020's main pop girl – a sort of cultural protagonist in a general sense. She's got talent to spare and more artistic chops than most of the Billboard 100 put together, so why not? It's only natural.

After years spent beavering away on the margins of the mainstream as a hitmaker for some of the industry's biggest names, she's got the experience – and the contacts – to make that crowd-pleasing album herself – and here it is.

The upshot of this feeling, though, manifests as a kind of art school neediness, an agitated desire to show off trick after trick until the cards become a blur. It is the cramming of a prodigious (to put it lightly) musico-dramatic imagination into a work which is both short-lived and packed with guest features. So anxious is KiCk i to show you what Arca has been up to all these years, to show you what you may have been missing, it vomits masses of sonic data at the listener in a torrent, hurrying so fast towards the next left turn that you start to pick up on when they might be coming.

In fairness, a retrospective on an oeuvre incorporating hip hop, modern classical, R&B, industrial, reggaeton, harsh noise and a multitude of other referents was never going to be straightforward, and it was always going to be busy. The usual adjectives will be flung at it – right now, twenty well-paid music writers in New York are filing articles calling it kaleidoscopic, multifaceted, protean, shapeshifting, and so on. And those labels won't be wrong, exactly; the problem with KiCk i's particular brand of spontaneity is that it feels procedural and expository, rather than organic. It can seem, when the smoke clears here and there, a bit hollow.

The album's vocals, too, deserve some comment. 2017's self-titled record prioritised Arca's voice to a similar extent, and to gorgeous effect: there, she turned a microscope on her untrained singing in a daring feat of self-examination. Gasps, wheezes and cracks, rather than merely made audible, were deliberately centralised across a host of songs as shattering as they were sumptuous. KiCk i, in contrast, features a few sung tracks and a hell of a lot of rapping. When it works, it's great – 'Mequetrefe' is one of the most daring and rousing pieces of music Arca has ever released, its impish vocal style camouflaging the seriousness of its lyrics.

Others are less successful – 'Riquiqui', replete with cat sounds, gets a bit annoying. Some songs even feature (whisper it) scat singing. The excellent London rapper Shygirl arrives for 'Watch', a peppy tune halfway through the album, and serves up an accomplished verse; Arca's instrumental fails to thrill, however, with its ugly synth line, stock Phonotix kit snares and dated wubbing, all of which overpower the vocalist in the mix. The superior Arca-Shygirl collaboration is 'unconditional', a one-off single the pair released in June in support of Black Lives Matter.

It doesn't help, furthermore, that KiCk i's songwriting, taken next to the average Arca work, is observably dumbed-down. Her tracks have always been short, but the tunes here, stuffed to bursting as they are with cool noises and other people, permit little room for structural manoeuvre. A song like 2014's 'Sad Bitch', conversely, which builds a towering and funereal palace of sound on a single piano phrase, does more emotionally with one instrument and some virtuosic tone colouring than half of KiCk i's tracklist.

You might think I’m comparing albums too much, but it's hard to do otherwise: toward the album's close, Arca revisits Xen herself to nab the string instrumental from 'Wound', adapting it for KiCk i's penultimate track, 'Machote'. The original song is a masterstroke, a distress signal from a distant planet; 'Machote', unfortunately, gets nowhere near its predecessor, gaining nothing from a limp beat and gloopy vocal.

KiCk i is designed to succeed with a broader audience than Arca's usual conclave, and I have little reason to believe that it won't. I hope it does, too; I'll just have to come to terms with the fact that she'll win followers with this particular work rather than with &&&&& or 'Coraje', or 'Boyfriend', or that deeply cursed remix she did of Shakira's 'Hips Don't Lie'.

Don't take this as snobbery, please; Arca has always appreciated pop, whatever the music press says, and you should be suspicious of the various claims floating about that posit KiCk i as some kind of momentous departure for her in genre terms. Besides the aforementioned visibility of her claw-marks on some of the biggest chart blockbusters of the last decade (on now-canonical albums by Kanye, Björk, and others), she's made constant space for pop in her own work, from the very beginning; even at her noisiest and most severe, snappy melodies and danceable beats tend to shine out.

My mum, who doesn't like a lot besides Joni and Afrobeats, sashays around the living room to 'Dignity', the opener from 2012's Stretch 1. If Stretch 2's 'Manners' contained a lead vocal, it would easily get on Beats 1 or whatever. Nevertheless, I do worry slightly about the hysterical scrutiny a widened profile invites: Arca was cancelled recently for having an investment banker dad and/or for living for a time in the posh suburb of Darien, Connecticut; her online tarring, mercifully brief, coincided with other high-profile, parent-related cancellations: that of Mitski (alleged CIA dad), and Jia Tolentino (alleged human trafficker dad). If there's any reliable sign that the big leagues have arrived, or are at the very least around the corner, it's being the focal point of an online pile-on.

Lastly, if you'll permit yet another comparison, KiCk i has the misfortune to arrive directly after two seriously exciting Arca works, both of which are propulsive, and gruesome, and unaccommodating, and deserve the fullness of your attention: the hour-long singles '@@@@@' and '^^^^^'. The former is a far superior demonstration of what Arca is capable of than KiCk i, and the latter, which is properly fucked, will make you check the back of your speakers to see if something has caught fire.

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