This Is How You Smile

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Pitchfork Review

Roberto Carlos Lange’s sixth and best album as Helado Negro deepens and expands upon the imagistic nature of his lyrics and cosmic synth-folk. It is a sublime, masterful piece of music.

The Antiguan-American author Jamaica Kincaid first published the short story “Girl” in The New Yorker in 1978. In what is essentially one long run-on sentence, “Girl” takes the form of a stern mother’s list of instructions to her daughter on how to become a skilled, self-possessed woman (“this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all”). The litany is imbued with both intense maternal love and unsparing criticism, an imbalance that reflects a colonialist structure that Kincaid sharply excoriates in writing. “I’ve come to see that I’ve worked through the relationship of the mother and the girl to a relationship between Europe and the place that I’m from,” Kincaid explained to Mississippi Review in 1996. “Which is to say, a relationship between the powerful and the powerless.”

That metaphorical relationship, between a powerful forebear and powerless descendants, colors much of This Is How You Smile, Roberto Carlos Lange’s sixth and best album under his Helado Negro moniker. Following 2016’s Private Energy, an album that wrestled with violence against people of color through electronic-pop meditations on identity and connection, Smile takes Kincaid’s weary passion and wanders through soothing, ambling soundscapes, framed as a stroll with Lange’s older brother down the sun-baked streets of South Florida, where they grew up. The album deepens and expands upon the imagistic nature of Lange’s lyrics and cosmic synth-folk, using found sound and his own sonorous, humming voice to tease out the complicated harmony of love and power at the heart of Kincaid’s short story.

These sublime confessions are fixated on perseverance, of embracing joy and laughter while facing the everyday difficulties of growing up in an immigrant household. “Blush now/They can’t know/Lifelong history shows,” Lange sings over gently chiming vibraphone on the opener “Please Won’t Please,” “That brown won’t go/Brown just glows.” The song picks up the thread of Private Energy’s “Young, Latin and Proud” and “It’s My Brown Skin,” centering Lange’s experience of living as a Latinx person with plain-spoken lyrics of support and encouragement. That tender intention paves the way for the rest of This Is How You Smile’s open-hearted solicitude.