On ‘Private Energy,’ Helado Negro’s Quiet Intensity Is a Stadium-Sized Political Statement

Photo by Ben Sellon. Courtesy of Helado Negro

Ever since Helado Negro (aka Roberto Carlos Lange) released the languorous anthem “Young, Latin and Proud,” the Ecuadorian-American artist has felt ours. Without bombast or ego, this producer sang softly into a mic and patiently articulated his bicultural pride like he was raising a graceful banner we could all rally under, especially in uncertain times.

And while “Young, Latin and Proud” let listeners all over the world celebrate their heritage, the complexities of a pluralistic identity remain a Gordian knot for anyone navigating multiple cultures. But on his new release Private Energy, out today via Asthmatic Kitty, Helado Negro is stepping out in front of us once again and working through the tangles that make people who they are.

The album is an exploration of the 36-year-old’s sense of self, not just in terms of race or ethnicity, but also with the hope of understanding his general place in the world. Part of Helado Negro’s magic has always been his quiet intensity, and here, he masterfully leverages dreamy synths, twinkling effects, and a barely-there groove to keep the album stripped down and scaled back, an approach that feels honest and organic when the music is so personal. The themes on Private Energy could have easily turned out an overly cerebral and confounding piece of work, but Helado Negro’s careful touch has created a mosaic of lingering, patient tracks that his listeners — especially Latinx ones — can apply their own questions to.

Photo by Ben Sellon
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Not that this is how he thought of things while creating Private Energy over the last two years. “When I make all this stuff, it’s more for me, than anything. Putting it out there, you’re very unaware of what the reaction is going to be,” he told us from Brooklyn, where he’s based, the day before the album came out.

“That’s what this record is about – preserving this energy you have so you can do the right thing at the right time.”

Ironically, Helado Negro’s deep turn inward is the result of what was going on in the environment around him. He wrote most of Private Energy back in 2014 as police brutality, racial tensions, and violence took over the news cycle with assaultive force. He saw people around him grappling with how to process overwhelming emotions and the continuous reminders of the social injustice black and brown communities face. Even as a musician with a platform, he wasn’t sure what his own role was. So he began making songs that acknowledged the intricacies of humans, including himself, in an effort to unplug from the confusion. Though the album was released two years later, it still holds up — perhaps even more effectively today, since the issues that rattled Helado Negro in 2014 have become increasingly central to the national conversation.

“What private energy represents for me is…that there are a lot of people dictating how to handle the stuff that’s been happening. But ultimately, when you tell people how to feel, you have to give them time…That’s what this record is mostly about, preserving this energy you have so you can do the right thing at the right time,” he explained.

Helado Negro’s previous album, Double Youth, was an examination of his memories and childhood. The album featured a wrinkling black-and-white photo of him and his brother — a private relic of his youth revealed to fans. Details like this have always made Helado Negro seem open and accessible, but he calls Private Energy his most personal project and biggest show of vulnerability to date.

Album artwork for Helado Negro’s Double Youth.
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Take “It’s My Brown Skin,” a gauzy love song to the brownness that envelops him. It’s a bright, sunny rhythm to sway to, complete with a playful choir of “la da das” that contrast the intimacy of Helado Negro lyrics. He tackles the subject matter calmly — almost cheerfully — as he sings, “My brown me is the shade that’s just for me/I’m never not missing anything but me/’Cause I love you/And I can’t miss anything but you.” Lange says the song wasn’t just an ode to his own physical being — he was writing the lyrics for all younger brown people who might feel alienated in an era when anti-immigrant sentiments, especially those propagated by Donald Trump, are broadcasted all over the Internet.

Even if he thinks he’s only talking to himself, Helado Negro is speaking loud enough for all of us to hear.

On “Runaround,” a sleepy ballad dressed up in glittering synths, Helado confronts the turmoil he felt after a jury failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. The lyrics include, “No love/can cut our knife in two,” lines inspired by an Isaac Asimov short story of the same name about a robot programmed with conflicting internal rules.

“There’s more literal stuff happening in terms of even just the song titles, like ‘Young Latin and Proud,’ and ‘It’s My Brown Skin.’ I’m talking about myself in a not-so-cryptic way in the lyrics…and there’s something in the compositions that became more singer-songwriterish,” he explained.

The messages might be more direct than on previous Helado Negro efforts, but to keep things from getting too heavy, he harnesses the power of experimentation. Sonically, Private Energy is expertly layered, but it never sounds weighed down. Each song, no matter how tranquil, has enough of a beat to produce a solid shimmy. Onstage, those movements are usually interpreted by Helado Negro’s legion of Tinsel Mammals, hulking creatures covered head-to-toe in glistening strips of foil. A portrait of one of these sparkling figures is the cover art for Private Energy.

Album artwork for Private Energy.
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The album is also dotted with seconds-long interludes — titled “obras” — that play as though they’re short, quivering transmissions from space in between songs. “They’re like palate cleansers,” he says jokingly. And he’s right — the little moments of robotic beeps and ambient ripples allow breathing room for listeners to process what they’ve just heard.

It’s on “Tartamudo” that Lange really lifts the curtain back to show how difficult it is to talk about ourselves and who we are. From Blood Orange on his stunning Freetown Sound to Solange on her exquisite A Seat at the Table, we’ve seen black artists explore identity this year, and tackle oppression in a turbulent social era. Helado Negro’s effort is a quiet meditation from a Latino and person of color reconciling with himself and the world around him, and he does so with serene, precise control. The lyrics on “Tartamudo” toy with the idea of stuttering — that’s how tough it is to communicate this stuff — as he explains, “Por que soy una mujer/por que sigo siendo tu hombre.” It’s never easy to capture ourselves exactly as we are when identity is as amorphous and ever-changing as puddles of water. But Helado Negro lets us eavesdrop on his thinking process as he tries to make sense of the question we’re all plagued with: Who are we? And even if he thinks he’s only talking to himself, Helado Negro is speaking loud enough for all of us to hear.

Stream Helado Negro’s Private Energy below.