With a couple acclaimed mixtapes and major radio hits already between them for 2016, it’s hardly like Chance the Rapper and Jeremih’s respective 2016s were much in need of closing punctuation. But they rose to the holiday occasion anyway, by releasing the unexpected mixtape Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama on Thursday (Dec. 21), a delightful SoundCloud stocking-stuffer that provided fans with nine tracks of X-Mas-themed original jams to start ramping up their holiday spirit for the upcoming weekend.
The project could’ve very easily come off as a trifle, or at best a bonus EP of sorts for two artists with nothing left to prove in 2016. But Merry Christmas feels like nearly as much of a triumph as Coloring Book or Late Nights: Europe were, because the two artists so clearly understand the format they’re working within, and they seem to know exactly what to do to make their mixtape the exact present fans didn’t even realize they were waiting for. Here are five ways they were able to nail it so beautifully:
1. They kept it a surprise. Everyone knows there’s no quicker way to ruin a gift’s impact than by giving away too much about it ahead of time — even if you don’t reveal what it is, just talking it up too much ahead of time can guarantee the present underwhelms when it finally arrives. But not only did we not know the size or shape of the box Chance and Jeremih were leaving underneath the tree, we didn’t know one was coming from them at all — making the mixtape’s arrival like getting a check in the mail from a far-away uncle you weren’t sure remembered you even existed.
2. They invited their friends. The holidays are all about getting warm greetings from buds you didn’t even realize were gonna be around. And here Chance and Jeremih brought along a couple folks whose presence will always be welcome: comedian Hannibal Burress, asking for (and receiving) the Travis Scott vocal treatment on the outro to album opener, “All the Way,” and rapper Noname, adding new dimension to the closing verse of dramatic peak “The Tragedy.”. All that’s missing is D.R.A.M. showing up to rhapsodize about how great eggnog is.
3. They respected their history. The pre-existing X-Mas canon is well-represented throughout Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama, from the dialogue from A Christmas Story that opens the mixtape, to light interpolations of “Jingle Bells” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” throughout, even to a brief detour into *NSYNC’s late-’90s holiday classic “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays” at the end. None of the references are either overbearing or dismissive — just two artists recognizing the legacy, as they attempt to enter the lineage themselves.
4. They achieved the right mix of joy and melancholy. The best Christmas songs are rarely entirely happy or entirely miserable — the smiling ones have an underpinning of sadness to them, and the tearjerking ones are still so powered by so much emotion that they end up feeling life-affirming just the same. Chance and Jeremih get the balance right here, mixing in celebrations of love and family with ballads of heartbreak and loss, and never representing only one emotion in any one song — even the track called “Joy” contains a brutal Chance verse about the violence of his Chicago hometown, offering “Sometimes I dream of moving to a spot where cops carry batons.” The holidays are a beautiful but complicated time of year, and Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama calibrates that complexity perfectly.
5. They paid tribute to those who couldn’t be with us. Feeding into the wide span of emotions that informs every holiday season is the reminder of those who we’re no longer celebrating with. Jeremih and Chance acknowledge the importance of making sure those gone are not forgotten on Lil’ Mama, bemoaning the deaths of David Bowie, Prince and Craig Sager (among others) on “I Shoulda Left You,” and chanting “RIP” for late Chi-town footwork icon DJ Rashad on the closing title track. (Even Michael Jackson, departed since 2009, looms large via Jeremih’s interpolation of the Jackson 5 classic “I Want You Back” on “Stranger At the Table.”) Again, sad, but also comforting, and full of love — the most important element in any collection of holiday music.