In The New Christmas Canon, The A.V. Club looks beyond Rudolph’s nose and Zuzu’s petals to highlight entertainment from the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s that’s become a seasonal staple—or deserves to.
If you want to hear someone rap about Santa Claus, you have a surprising number of options. During Dipset’s late-’00s “flood the market” era, Jim Jones released A Dipset X-Mas, which featured five chintzy tracks from the Harlem hip-hop collective about Christmas, alongside five chintzy tracks about non-Christmas shopping and marijuana. A decade earlier, Suge Knight’s Death Row Records was on a similarly carefree streak, and released Christmas On Death Row, which features a couple of decent hip-hop holiday tracks (Tha Dogg Pound’s “I Wish,” Snoop Dogg’s James Brown riff “Santa Claus Goes Straight To The Ghetto”), and a frankly shocking quantity of unaltered, straight-faced classics, like “White Christmas” and “Frosty The Snowman.” All of these are better performed by artists who aren’t named Danny Boy or 6 Feet Deep. Other Christmas-themed rap albums, like the Ying Yang Twins’ four-track The Ying And The Yang Of The Holidays, should never be listened to by anyone.
If you scope back a decade before that, to the early and mid-’80s, there were a suite of Christmas rap tracks, by people like Cut Master D.C. (“Santa’s Beat Box”), Derek B (“Chillin’ With Santa”), and Kurtis Blow (“Christmas Rappin’”). All of these old-school tracks are fun, in their way, as can be the themed albums released later, but they all suffer from one of two tendencies. Hip-hop Christmas songs either sound nothing like a Christmas song, or they revel too delightedly in naughtiness and frankly unfunny “Christmas spirit” subversion. A track like “Ludacrismas,” by Ludacris, suffers from both problems at once, as it’s both a trunk-rattling beat and a sequence of loud punchlines about gold front teeth and Cadillacs. (Somewhere in there is a message about income inequality, but Luda can’t decide between delivering a message and delivering a banger, so fails at both.) Eazy-E’s “Merry Muthafuckin’ Xmas,” often discussed as a crown jewel in the pantheon of great Christmas hip-hop songs, is almost indecipherable from other peak Eazy-E tracks, and revels in such Christmas traditions as watching Eazy-E have sex with your mom. It is, in other words, a solid Eazy-E track, but a very poor Christmas one.
So if you’re serious about the Christmas hip-hop canon, its population is rather small, despite the surprising quantity of possible entrants. There are three great hip-hop Christmas tracks. The first is 1987’s “Christmas In Hollis,” by Run-DMC, which merges a persistent sleigh bell, interpolated Christmas carols, and a sneering, sinister horn line into the sort of infectious rap-along the group had then perfected. It was released during the group’s critical and commercial peak, just one year after the release of Raising Hell.
The second great Christmas rap song came a decade later, and is the original version of “Player’s Ball,” which Outkast initially recorded for A LaFace Family Christmas, before making it slightly less Christmas-related in order to fit in on 1996’s ATLiens. That the track was transformed by merely tweaking the hook and removing the sleigh bells, implies that it is less holiday-focused than something like “Christmas In Hollis,” but that’d be denying how much better the track’s analog funk works in its holiday incarnation. It’s also fun to think about mid-’90s Andre and Big Boi conceding to make a single for their label’s Christmas compilation but then delivering a song about an intergalactic celebration of “players” that merely happens to occur alongside Christmas.
Which brings us to the third and most recent introduction to the Christmas hip-hop canon: Kanye West’s “Christmas In Harlem,” from 2010. There are several versions of the track available, but the essential one is the original, which emerged on the internet the Friday before Christmas, when most people were winding down their work for the year and already shuffling between holiday parties.
The track stomps along at a few BPMs slower than the other versions that have made the rounds, but most importantly, this version stretches on past six minutes, with verse after verse from various Yeezy accomplices like Pusha-T, Cyhi The Prynce, and a young Big Sean, as well as a visit from hip-hop’s most noted Christmas fan: Dipset’s Jim Jones, who just loves this Christmas shit, apparently. Perhaps most remarkably, “Christmas In Harlem” manages something Jim Jones never could, and ropes in Dipset member Cam’ron, one of hip-hop’s great eccentrics, for a holiday-themed verse. Cam’ron’s recorded output can be maddeningly inconsistent, but Yeezy’s always had an innate understanding of the MC’s gifts, doing journeyman production work for him early on and reuniting on tracks like Late Registration’s “Gone” and the Purple Haze standout “Dip-Set Forever.” Here his verse is saved for last, with a hushed cadence to the delivery so that his words hang off the beat like meat from a spare rib. It ends with the ever-thoughtful MC wishing a happy Hanukkah to his Jewish lawyers, before strings swoop in to punctuate the verse, adding the sort of musical emphasis West likes to orchestrate for his favorite collaborators.
All of the seven MCs on “Christmas In Harlem” are game, goofy, and quietly joyous; even Pusha adds a holiday twinkle to his memories of selling heroin. But what ties it all together is Hit-Boy’s swooning production, dodging the jokey club-ready tone of so many other holiday rap tracks and aiming instead for the wistful, faintly melancholy tone of “White Christmas” or “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” He builds the track with samples of Marvin Gaye and Shuggie Otis, splitting the difference between crackling vinyl and a crackling fireplace, with slowly swelling strings providing not just a nostalgic swoon to the whole affair but also a welcome musical density for such a long posse cut. Viewed historically, it serves as something of a coming-out party for the producer. He had made the rounds in mid-tier hip-hop production for a few years before “Christmas In Harlem,” but this track marked his first of many collaborations with West. The next year, the two would drop “Niggas In Paris,” after which Hit-Boy would provide the beats for tracks like “Goldie,” “Backseat Freestyle,” and “Trophies.” “Christmas In Harlem” doesn’t slot neatly into the producer’s oeuvre—his defining sound is far from the tone here, but then, so is most of hip-hop’s. This singular quality is the point: No one in hip-hop had ever before embraced the sentimentality prevalent in Christmas music, and, five years later, no one has since. If credit belongs to anyone in particular, then, it’s not Hit-Boy, whose musicality sells the track, or Cam’ron, who gets top billing on the single cover and provides its most memorable moment: It’s Kanye West, whose curatorial taste brought them together in the first place, and whose dense, genre-devouring vision of hip-hop is so expansive and confident that why wouldn’t it also include traditional Christmas music.
There’s something inevitable about West releasing hip-hop’s crown holiday jewel at the end of 2010. In late August of that year, he unexpectedly released a remix of his summer-conquering single “Power,” and declared that every Friday from then until the end of the year he’d release another new track. The very next week he dropped the aptly named “Monster”; the series went on to premiere other tracks from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as well as album-quality B-sides like “Lord Lord Lord,” glimpses into other projects like Watch The Throne and Child Rebel Soldiers, and one-off riffs, like the Justin Bieber-Raekwon remix or the Q-Tip and Consequence reunion “Chain Heavy.” (Kanye’s devotion to his heroes knows no bounds.) Midway through this stretch, he found time to release one of the great post-millennial rap albums, but the free Friday series rolled on afterward, the vaults still overflowing.
By using a Christmas song to conclude the series, on one hand, West was cementing his legacy: one final addition to the canon, one final three swishing through the net. On the other hand, he was just doing what the rest of us try to do at the end of the year—pencil in a moment for stillness, for unabashed nostalgia, for joy, not to mention for goofing off, complaining about shopping, and giving something, free of expectation, that will hopefully make someone else happy. On all of these fronts, “Christmas In Harlem” is a success. But you also get the feeling, listening to the music Kanye West released in 2010, that “Christmas In Harlem” was something more, like a gift to himself. The clue is there in the title. What, after all, do you give to the rap fan who has everything? The answer may be nothing more or less than a shiny new Cam’ron verse.