Every note of Lange’s work is meticulously crafted, but not in an opulent fashion.
Political moments are loud. They are sermons, rallies, cries and marches. In times of strife and dread, just the act of noise can feel like a vital interruption, a reminder of ignored fears. And the political music of the ‘10s has reflected that need for a scream. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” was co-opted by Black Lives Matter as a marching song, Algiers preached on evil from the rooftops and Against Me!’s “True Trans Soul Rebel” was as triumphant as it was massive. But that need to fill up space with volume can be a sign of anxiety and insecurity. Sometimes our most powerful psalms come in the quietest tones. A prayer can be for the world, but only be heard by its speaker. And Helado Negro has made an album of prayers. This Is How You Smile is 12 hushed hymns to health, happiness and defiance. This is cozy, cloudy music, whispering that the revolution is imminent.
Roberto Carlos Lange’s prominence this decade has come from his synthesis of solace and politics. “Young, Latin and Proud” and “My Brown Skin” were celebrations of Latinx identity in an America increasingly hostile to the very existence of color. Like a calmer version of Chicano Batman, Lange’s works were self-affirmations, hoping to imbue the listener with courage. And This Is How You Smile opens with the same sentiments as Lange coos “Brown won’t go/ Brown just glows.” “Please Won’t Please,” is a soft, mewling track with sleepy synths and shimmering piano that hides Lange’s steely determination, “We’ll light ourselves on fire/ Just to see who really wants to believe/ That it’s just me. Even among all this blanketing beauty, Lange is pleading to be recognized as human, seeing millions with his same pigment treated as animals in the country he calls home.
But there are also moments of worship, finding sanctuary in the smallest tidbits of humanity. “Imagining What to Do” is a tender love song about surviving the New York winter by cuddling. Lange melts the song into sheer empathy. Chiming, fuzzy pianos briefly interject as Lange coos “We’ll stay under the covers until there’s no snow.” Just after his voice flutters into falsetto, there’s a breath then a toe-curling steel drum line. The first time I heard it, I didn’t even realize I was crying until I looked into my rearview mirror.
Every note of Lange’s work is meticulously crafted, but not in an opulent fashion. It’s quant rococo, the flourishes never overstaying their welcome, simply hitting and retreating in harmony. And the lyrics work in the same modest fashion. Lange trapezes through glitched out synth-pop (“Fantasma Vaga”), blissed funk (“Running”) and sun-shine boom bap (“Seen My Aura”). The sounds and collaborators change, but the core textures never do. This Is How You Smile is remarkable in its pastel palette, gently plucking from disparate genres, but redrafting them in Lange’s wooly world. There are moments that sound like flamenco slowed down and covered in molasses or unearthed b-sides from a meditative Lionel Ritchie. “Pais Nublado” takes a little “Chan Chan” swing, taking the BPM down a notch but accenting with ornate kisses of synths and pianos. It starts as a love-turned-obsession track, but when Lange sings “We’ll be here long after you,” it’s clear he’s not tracking down an old flame, but calmly prophesizing that an Ozymandian fate awaits those using xenophobia for power-grabs.
The specters of Trump, the border wall and the general malaise that seems to follow the news cast long shadows. But Lange always finds a way to inhabit peace. It’s in his family, friends and music that he recharges, able to take a fresh look at the world. In This Is How You Smile’s idyllic moments, Lange seems to be gently asking “Well, how can we make it better?” There are few albums as welcoming as this. Lange’s use of nostalgia, from the old, fuzzy synths to the album art work, allows the album to envelope and hint at moments of childhood, where being jaded was impossible. The snug bounce of “Two Lucky” feels like dancing with your dad in the kitchen, your feet resting on his shoes. It’s reminiscent of Frank Ocean’s soaring “Summer’s not as long as it used to be” on Blond[e], but reversed. Some of Lange’s last words are “Take care of people today.” While Ocean found ennui, Lange instead discovered a quiet perseverance and the radiant, hushed warmth of hope. And he nestles it in his, and our, heart.