Chance the Rapper and Jeremih’s surprise release is a Christmas album for the final yuletide of the Obama administration: one last bastion of hope in an uncertain and fraught time.
When Chance the Rapper performed “Sunday Candy” with Jamila Woods and Nico Segal at the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, there was something distinctly special, and spiritual, about it: A prodigious and cheery “mixtape rapper” singing modern psalms and praises on the national stage at the behest of the first black President of the United States in his last days; the convergence of a God Dream and the American Dream. It felt like something to soak in and savor, to get nourishment from—both because of its almost absurdly uplifting energy and because it was something we might never see again, on any count. Chance seemed to linger in the moment, as if recognizing and relishing its significance; for many, next Christmas will feel much different, and this ceremony will probably look different, too. Next Christmas will be a white Christmas.
The sentiment echoed weeks later on “Saturday Night Live” when Chance and Kenan Thompson performed a sketch called “Jingle Barack,” its politics laid plain in its lyrics: “It’s the last Christmas with Barack still here,” the foreshadowing clear, the successor’s agenda unspoken. Both Chicago natives, Chance first met Obama when he was 8 years old, his father a staffer for the POTUS during his Senate years. It isn’t too much of a stretch to suggest that Chance’s songs can often embody the hope Obama campaigned on—sources of inspiration for those coloring outside the lines, and also, to paraphrase Kanye, those who are colored and deemed out of line. Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that Chance is coming into his own as a lightning rod and leader as Obama departs, but it isn’t a coincidence that he identified this Christmas as a necessary time for healing.
As if realizing the magnitude of the moment, or just never one to miss an opportunity to be merry, Chance and fellow Chicagoan Jeremih surprise released a holiday marvel called Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama, a Christmas album for the final yuletide of the Obama administration: one last bastion of hope in an uncertain and fraught time; a sonic snow globe where unflinching altruism, glee, and love (both neighborly and sensual) rule; a priceless gift celebrating the season of giving.
And it isn’t just for President Obama—or for Lil’ Mama—it’s for all of us, too. It’s functional Christmas music that’s somehow also music for any function, set at Christmas. Where holiday tunes are typically hokey, decidedly old-fashioned, and predictable, Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama is actively (and perhaps instinctively) animated and stimulating, not satisfied with just conveying the spirit of the season but breathing life into it; it’s warm, natural, and even familiar in spots.
This is the rare Christmas album that breaks from convention without defying tradition, using A Christmas Story snippets, a “Carol of the Bells” rework, and an “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” interpolation as blueprints to create the most refreshing festive songs in recent memory. But more than anything, it’s frolicsome and jolly, in keeping with the theme. The album captures Christmastime joy with juke, and jive, and the Jackson 5. About three minutes in, Hannibal Buress asks for Travis Scott effects on his vocals, and he gets them. There’s something for everyone.
Over nine songs that sound like they were as fun to make as they are to listen to, Chance and Jeremih move in intervals and in tandem, complementing each other and operating in sync without losing their distinct voices. Chance’s path is mostly a righteous one (“The Pontius Pilates judge my bundle of joys/I know my bronze is gorgeous/Know who the birthday boy is”), and Jeremih’s a naughty one (“Know you cold, let’s bundle up/I’m just tryna get some love”), but they frequently find the overlaps or trade roles, as on “Snowed In” and “Joy.” In Jeremih’s capable hands, holiday staples become innuendos: sleighs and slays, hos, silent nights and unwrappings, sliding down chimneys, etc. Chance can turn a club into a nativity scene. Together they are an unstoppable force of good will and glad tidings wrapped in radiant melodies and scat raps.
Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama scans Chance’s acid rap, steppers R&B, robotic soul, the gospel lite of Coloring Book, and Teklife juke and footwork seamlessly, adding streaking string arrangements, distorted Auto-Tune vocals, choirs, standout Zaytoven keyboard fills, and production from DJs Spinn and Gantman. They enlists help from rappers Lud Foe, King Louie, and Noname (who delivers another show-stopping verse on “The Tragedy” with raps like “Our heathenous appetite, ever and after/Like Christmas will save us and bathe us in rapture”). The songs are sincere and unpretentious, and are encapsulated by a single Jeremih lyric: “Your presence is a present for me/For Christmas or just because.”
The album crescendos into “I Shoulda Left You,” a lively anthem for anyone looking to ditch toxicity in the godforsaken year that was 2016. “Rest in peace to great David Bowie/Please can we get back Prince?” Chance pleads in a half whine before beaming brightly, stifling laughter; there’s still fun to be had. The song serves as a larger metaphor for progress and optimism, avoiding stagnation, and cutting off unhealthy relationships. Its cheer feeds its mentality, seemingly suggesting better days ahead. A few minutes earlier, on “Joy,” Jeremih insinuates that we must create that brighter future ourselves. “They tend to forget about love,” he sings. “Let’s get right back to the joy.” And in these moments, where everything is snug and safe, it seems possible—probable even. On Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama, Christmas is restorative. No matter what, hope endures.
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