When you can get as cynical about the holiday season as this particular writer, it’s easy to scoff at any Christmas-themed release—especially when it’s a hip-hop/R&B mixtape that unexpectedly drops just three days before Christmas. This has to be tossed-off, right? This has to be corny, right?
Well, yes and no.
Chance The Rapper and Jeremih unexpectedly released a holiday-themed mixtape this Thursday and the two collaborators, who have worked together consistently (2015s “Somewhere in Paradise” and “Summer Friends” this year), didn’t try to hide how fast this project came together. So, yes, it was a quick one. But no—it isn’t corny. At least, not as corny as it should be.
This is Chance’s first project since he released one of the year’s best in Coloring Book back in April. Jeremih, who dropped his Late Nights: Europe mixtape in July, announced the project on Instagram just after its release, with Chance the Rapper sharing the Soundcloud link on Twitter. And, with the buzz of Christmas office parties, holiday-themed drinks with friends, and “Happy Holidays, stranger!” texts from old flames, Merry Christmas, Lil Mama actually wins as the soundtrack to your season—even if you plan on being more naughty than nice.
After the obligatory A Christmas Story-sampling introduction (“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”), “All the Way” sets things off perfectly, with a bouncy beat and a cutesy sample as Chance shouts out jingle bells and having “three hoes on my sleigh,” before Jeremih breaks things down over an acoustic guitar-driven bridge. It also features an interlude from comedian Hannibal Buress (also a Chicago native) midway through. “I swear to God, if you leave my vocals like that—we’re not friends anymore,” Buress threatens, after hilariously crooning an off-key “Jeeeesuuuus” in the spirit of the season—which he dismisses as when we’re “obligated to buy shit for people at a certain time of the year.”
Jeremih opens “Snowed In” in downbeat fashion, before cooing “I’ll be home Christmas” and making sleighs and gifts sound like a late-night creep. Heavy breathing and clumsy innuendo aren’t exactly subtle, and it’s a weaker moment on the album—but that says more about what’s surrounding this particular track than the song itself. Bongo The Drum Gahd delivers the Jackson 5-inspired “Stranger At the Table,” which features a slowed-down take on the “I Want You Back” melody, with Jeremih singing “I know I’m not that nigga that you just playin’ for now” about a love that’s gone. The references to mistletoe and trees sound shoehorned-in to a song that works independently of the holiday theme; Chance’s verse comes off more organically, as he urges his girl to reconsider.
The twinkling ivories of “Joy” mark one of the better tracks on the album, with Jeremih crooning about the birth of Jesus. More romantic odes to Christmas trees and eggnog are where the album’s motif—holiday warm ‘n fuzzies and being booed up—comes to crest most effortlessly. You can practically see the ugly Christmas sweaters, but it’s never corny or forced. Like most of Merry Christmas, Lil Mama, it works because of Jeremih and Chance The Rapper’s chemistry. Tasteful organ hits and horns amplify the mood, with Chance referencing bail money and the late Bettie Jones, the 55-year-old Chicago woman who was killed by police around Christmas 2015 after calling them for help during a disturbance.
“I’m Your Santa” is as much an ode to Chicago stepping as it is to Kris Kringle—another moment where all of the mixtape’s main themes come together masterfully. If you’re having a holiday get-together this weekend, there’s no reason for this not to be on your playlist. Even if you’ve never two-stepped in a Chicago ballroom, this is a perfect groove that goes well with too much eggnog and too little inhibition.
The Zaytoven-produced “I Shoulda Left You” makes an anthem out of the oft-repeated sentiment that’s grown pervasive as we’ve reached year’s end. Leaving all of the bullshit in 2016 has become a national mantra; the idea of shucking the drama of the last year isn’t new or novel, but it’s taken on a special resonance this year with an election that seemed to have gobsmacked over half of the country, and the high-profile deaths of what feels like an endless list of superstar musicians, actors, journalists, athletes, and other newsmakers. Guest star Lud Foe’s verse is just shots at haters who didn’t stick around—“Remember when they used to make fun of me/I pull up like trucks and they run from me/Bleu cheese, yeah my pockets where the hundreds be”—but Chance acknowledges far-reaching “2016 needs to end” angst near the end of the track as he raps both a tribute and a lament for those lost. “Rest in peace, the great David Bowie,” Chance utters, before adding, “Please can we get back Prince,” and in a clear indicator that Merry Christmas… was just finished, a shout-out to the recently departed Craig Sager, who died barely a week prior to the mixtape dropping.
The Jeremih-led “The Tragedy” paints a portrait of a forlorn old man “sitting on a corner, tryna find what’s his”—a standout. As Jeremih sings that “He needs heaven,” the pizzicato strings add to the chilly, detached feel of the song’s mood—amplified by the cracking of vintage record player effects. It’s a somberly effective moment, helped by a guest appearance from Noname, another Chicago rapper (she also made appearance on Chance’s Acid Rap and dropped her own Telefone mixtape back in July).
The darkness doesn’t last, thankfully, as Chance comes bounding back into the proceedings with the “Carol of the Bells”-aping “Chi-Town Christmas,” with the duo name-dropping specifics surrounding Christmastime in the Windy City. Chance and Jeremih chant, “This is how we do it in the midwest,” with Jeremih singing “Finna hit the plaza!” before wistfully cooing about nights at the rink as a “few of my favorite things.” The closing title track features an assist from King Louie on the hook, over a rapid-fire drum’n bass rhythm, as the horndog sentiments return in full force—before “Happy Birthday, Jesus” is echoed over the “RIP Rashad” and “Merry Christmas, Lil Mama” refrain.
Jeremih’s kept busy with releases, guest spots, and appearances, while Chance is coming off a breakthrough 2016 and a well-received SNL appearance just a week prior. Lil Chano closes 2016 with a confident sidestep that never sounds like a throwaway. Merry Christmas, Lil Mama is about Chicago as much as it’s about Christmas; everyone involved makes sure to keep their hometown front-and-center as they both celebrate, question, and commemorate the season, from the families to the landmarks to the headlines, and it gives Merry Christmas, Lil Mama a thematic unity that reaches past its seasonal appeal. Does that mean you’ll be bumping this past December 25? Maybe not. But it does elevate what could’ve been cheesy and rote into something that feels (gasp!) inspired. And with all of the aforementioned eggnog and decking of halls, I may have just finally succumbed to the yuletide cheer.
If that’s the case, Merry Christmas, Lil Mama does its job: keeping you too lit to be a Grinch.