Considering how Private Energy positively beamed thanks to radiant songs like "It's My Brown Skin" and "Young, Latin and Proud," the title of Helado Negro's sixth album could come as a surprise. However, on This Is How You Smile, Roberto Carlos Lange finds ways to sustain a sense of identity, family, and love when that energy runs low. For these strong yet tender songs, Lange drew inspiration from Jamaica Kincaid's short story "Girl," in which an immigrant mother gives her daughter instructions on how to survive and thrive in a world that wasn't made for her. Lange's flair for imagery is just as deft as any author's: He sets the album's mood with "Please Won't Please," sounding weary but resilient as he sings "Lifelong history shows that brown won't go/Brown just glows" over a scuffed beat and luminous synths. On "Imagining What to Do," he sings of "waiting for the glow again," portraying joy, pride, and strength as resources that may flicker, but never fade away entirely. On these songs and throughout This Is How You Smile, Lange couples the evocative music at which he's always excelled with gorgeously insightful lyrics. He's grown into a subtly powerful songwriter over the years, and he's at the peak of his powers on "Pais Nublado," where the way its conversation between Spanish-speaking elders and English-speaking children flows adds to its poignancy. On "Running," he deals with these complicated and inescapable relationships with grace, setting his musings to a piano melody that's as warm and effortless as a sunbeam. The album's discourse includes not just the character's in Lange's songs, but Helado Negro's entire body of work. Along with shades of Private Energy, This Is How You Smile evokes the shadowy intimacy of Canta Lechuza and, on "Seen My Aura," the distant, sunny childhood memories of Double Youth. As always, the ambient side of Helado Negro's music is just as eloquent as Lange's songwriting, and interludes such as "Sabana de Luz" and the festive sounds of "My Real Name Is for My Friends" add to the album's hazy, lived-in warmth. While his advice to "take care of people today" on "Two Lucky" is the closest he gets to giving his listeners directives like Kincaid's, the sustenance Lange offers with these songs is more delicate than Private Energy's anthems, but just as necessary. A winning combination of his long-standing and more recently developed gifts, This Is How You Smile is a culmination of Helado Negro's work and completely relevant to when it was released.
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares