Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama is a stocking-stuffer; a half-hour holiday release slapped together for the season.
Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama is a stocking-stuffer; a half-hour holiday release slapped together for the season. It’s replete with references not just to Christmas, but the particular Christmas on which it was released – the hook “I shoulda left you in 2016” from “I Shoulda Left You” will sound as dated next year as Jim Morrison singing about his 20th-century fox has since it was laid to tape. Both Bowie and Prince are eulogized. And while last year’s glut of celebrity deaths may seem absurd, our rock stars aren’t getting any younger. A decade from now, we might not even remember what year Bowie and Prince died, let alone Alphonse Mouzon (another casualty of 2016). One wonders if Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama’s creators even expect anyone to listen to it after this season. “I was bumping that heavily around Christmas,” wrote a friend when I texted him about this tape. Will he ever bump it again?
But Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama is also a mixtape by Chance the Rapper, the most auteur-ish rap star since his mentor Kanye West. With its multi-part songs, elaborate arrangements and masses of swelling robot choirs, the tape feels like an opus in miniature. Chance’s fellow Chicagoan Jeremih occupies the mic for perhaps two-thirds of the thing, but the guiding vision is decidedly Chance’s. The grandeur, the nods to juke and gospel, the Christian fervor, they’re all familiar Chance staples.
If Chance is an heir to the “old Kanye,” it’s in part because of how his releases serve as self-contained parties in miniature; the guests feel like they’re all slumming it in the same room, mansion, or five-star hotel. Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama jumps out because of its communal spirit; though Chance is obviously the driving vision, he’s not the star, and guests like King L and Noname are just as memorable as either of the marquee names. Footwork stars DJ Spinn and the tremendously underrated Gant-Man provide production on “All The Way” and the title track, both nods to the hyper-regional Chicago house style Chance loves. And then there’s Zaytoven, Atlanta’s resident piano maestro, embellishing everything with his jazzy chords and stately fills.
Christmas itself mostly feels like a backdrop on Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama, which offers up a wealth of stories set to falling snow. Chance seems to have a lot on his mind: a few songs (“I Shoulda Left You,” “Stranger at the Table’) suggest a recent split, and he winces when his family asks him “where’s your shawty?” at Christmas dinner. “The Tragedy” briefly touches on homeless casualties in cold weather, though it stops short of providing a solution. Perhaps on his next tape he could provide an address where we could send clothes and blankets.
As for Jeremih, he’s happy as a clam, singing about snow and presents and fucking in the sleigh (he’s got three hos in it, geddit?) Though we don’t get a lot of his personality on Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama, he’s a fantastic singer with a childlike voice that would sound great singing carols. His main function seems to be, simply put, make everything prettier. It’s hard to see any other reason Chance would want to collaborate with him, save geographical convenience.
Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama is a solid tape, but it doesn’t have much replay value given its specificity and it won’t have fans shelving their copies of Late Nights or Coloring Book anytime soon. But it’s still fun to hear Chance’s grandiose sensibilities applied to something as ephemeral as a Christmas mixtape. This is a man who refuses to do anything small.