In 1978, the Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid published her seminal, single-sentence short story, “Girl,” in The New Yorker. The piece is shaped around an immigrant mother giving her daughter sharp-tongued, insistent advice on how to behave like the kind of woman she thinks society will accept: “This is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard,” she directs; “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; this is how you smile to someone you like completely…”
The daughter interjects just a few comments. When the mother demands that she “always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh,” the girl asks somewhat innocently, “But what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?” She’s still a child and perhaps too young to understand why her mother feels the need to arm her with so many instructions. But her mother’s words, harsh and caustic though they may be, are meant to prepare her as she faces the world.
The Ecuadorian-American electronic artist Helado Negro takes the title of his sixth album, This Is How You Smile, from Kincaid’s “Girl” and writes his own set of rules for persevering in a tumultuous era. To find a sense of comfort and healing, he rummages through carefree childhood memories and past moments of joy. He returns to the splashing public pools and steaming sidewalks of Miami, where he grew up; he revisits past relationships with lovers, friends, and family members; and he revels in everyday acts like walking through the park. He houses all of these recollections in a twinkling soundscape, built on layered synths and radiant pianos that outline the experiences that have led him to the present day.
Helado Negro, aka Roberto Carlos Lange, has always made deeply intimate music. He wrote his last album, 2016’s Private Energy, in response to the destructive rhetoric of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Songs like “Young Latin and Proud” and “It’s My Brown Skin” became defiant anthems and understated forms of resistance in Latinx communities. (A T-shirt that Lange sold on tour with the words “Young, Latin & Proud” became a common accessory at Latinx shows and immigration protests.) But while Private Energy empowered people to stand up for themselves, This Is How You Smile gently lays out the ways to endure as the fight continues.
The album is an inward-looking exercise that shares a commonality with the popular Audre Lorde mantra: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Combating oppression is necessary, but it doesn’t work long-term if the individuals engaged in that struggle tire out. Lange centers the album’s bruised and beautiful opener, “Please Won’t Please,” on the weariness that many people of color feel after years under a threatening government. “And we’ll light / Our lives on fire / Just to see / If anyone will come / Rescue / What’s left of me,” he murmurs over dreamy piano and a light bass that pulses like a weary heartbeat. Still, resilience and spiritual fortitude linger in lines like “Lifelong history shows / That brown won’t go / Brown just glows.”
The tender ache of “Please Won’t Please” sets the stage for the rest of the album. As Lange takes stock of “what’s left of me,” he seeks solace in nostalgia and quiet remembrances of his loved ones. Over the strum of an acoustic guitar on “Imagining What to Do,” he recalls nights spent in bed with his partner, waiting for the cold, dark winter to end: “We’ll stay under the covers / Until there’s no snow.” The bouncier “Seen My Aura” is a head-bop back to simpler childhood afternoons with his older brother: “I got no shoes on / Walking on sun-burned pavement, trying to look cool.”
And while Lange delves into highly personal memories on the album, he doesn’t offer every detail of them to his listeners. When he released one of the early singles, “Running,” he said that it contains “buried sentiments and personal histories. Most of it is just for me and some for you.” His choice to keep a few things to himself is a larger statement of the album as an act of self-care. Even in the process of sharing music, Lange reserves some space and privacy just for himself.
Like the daughter in the Kincaid story, Lange is guided by his upbringing in an immigrant family. He flips between English and Spanish, something he’s done on previous records, to reflect his bicultural identity. The subtle melody of “País Nublado” resembles a lulling bossa nova, and it carries Lange along as he reflects on those who came before him. He promises in Spanish that there will be time to explore a “country of clouds,” and then, in English, he pledges: “We’ll take our time / Knowing that we’ll be here long after you.” The song is almost like a call-and-response to and from his ancestors, and to future generations.
Lange’s masterful use of distortion and sound warping is particularly effective on an album interested in fragments of memory and hazy vagaries. The song “Fantasma Vaga,” which means “Wandering Ghost,” starts with wobbling loops and crackling synth noise that give the recording a haunted feeling. However, midway through, the track breaks into a lush arrangement that includes intricate keyboard melodies and soothing vocals from the Colombian electronic artist Ela Minus (she’s one of several friends and artists who make an appearance on the album; the credits also include Sufjan Stevens and Xenia Rubinos.) Throughout the album, Steinway baby-grand pianos and classical guitars appear alongside Moog and Organelle synths, making This Is How You Smile a tight-knit tapestry of analog and digital sounds. The combination helps bring out the emotional current and warmth of Lange’s recollections.
As the album draws to a close, Lange reminisces one last time about bursts of unbridled happiness and offers a way to bring that energy into the future: “Take care of people today, hold their hand / Call them up if you wanna say, / ‘Hey, I miss the way we used to hug / We used to dance a tiny bit,’” he recommends on “Two Lucky.” He sits in the past just a little longer as he muses, “Just kids with luck, we lasted so long / We knew nothing about this shit.”
A tiny interlude called “My Name Is for My Friends” closes the album. It’s built on samples that include celebratory cheers from a wedding and ambient noise from an “Abolish ICE” demonstration, the two scenarios merging jubilance and resistance into one. In the album’s credits, Lange reveals that the track also includes the sound of “a man staring up at the sky.” That might be the best image to end the project with: a person deep in thought, wistfully reliving memories that become a source of strength.