At 1:42 a.m. PT on Thursday morning, Chance the Rapper tweeted a SoundCloud link to a joint mixtape he made with Jeremih titled Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama. While it does have the distinct rough-ground feeling of a “mixtape,” these songs are far from table scraps. Merry Christmas … features just four guests: Hannibal Buress, Lud Foe, Noname, and King Louie. And tucked in about halfway through the mixtape, there’s this song called “Joy,” and it took a bat to my knees.
When I think about the abstract notion of “joy,” two distinct feelings take shape. There’s the tidy Hallmark-branded joy, with perfectly rounded edges — the kind you see in commercials, with kids thundering down the stairs at the asscrack of dawn on Christmas Day while wearing dinosaur pajamas to tear open R/C cars and dollhouses and bikes in front of exhausted, bleary-eyed, but contented parents.
Then there’s the stronger, more stubborn, and resilient kind of joy that’s been lived in and kicked around a bit. It feels earned. It’s the kind that presses up and through the concrete; that persists in spite of something. Or, in 2016’s case, everything.
Merry Christmas Lil’ Mama is a generally happy affair. The mixtape starts off with a sound bite about that stupid Red Ryder BB gun from A Christmas Story and some hilariously crotchety belly-aching from Buress about how Christmas is a time for spending a lot of money on shit nobody really wants or needs. At one point Jeremih interpolates the melody from the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”; elsewhere he slips “Tree everywhere” and “Timbs on my feet” into a particularly hardbody reimagining of “Carol of the Bells,” which will now replace the boring, faithful rendition on every one of my future Christmas playlists.
“Joy,” however, takes on a slightly less mirthful, more reverent tone. It opens with a soft, swaying piano that brushes elbows with a distant church organ, a sound that will be immediately familiar to you if you’ve ever seen the words “Alpha” and “Omega” printed on a Celebration of Life program at a Pentecostal church. Chance leads off with this:
Last year, on the day after Christmas, Chicago police responded to a domestic disturbance call, and shot and killed a 19-year-old engineering student and a 55-year-old mother of five — neither of whom were armed with a gun. The 19-year-old, Quintonio LeGrier, had reportedly threatened his father and was wielding a bat, and was the reason for the domestic-disturbance call; the 55-year-old, Bettie Jones, had done nothing but let the cops into the apartment building. A week and a half later, 250 family members and well-wishers gathered to mourn her in the church she had attended for most of her life. “My mama didn’t deserve this,” Jones’s daughter Latonya managed, in between sobs. “The day after Christmas, the police took my mama from us for no reason. All she tried to do was help them and this is how she gets repaid? We’re hurting right now, we’re crying because of these police.”
Jones’s death was explained as “an accident,” which is depressingly unsurprising, and willfully conflates intention with behavior. A report on the Chicago Police Department and race released four months later showed that three-quarters of the victims of the police-involved shootings between the years of 2008 and 2015 were black. And that, among other things, is why the authors, an accountability task force appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, noted a “widely held belief” that CPD has “no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.”
At a time when we’ve had to continue to find ways to say that we’re human, or explain that failing to comply with voiced commands — like selling loose cigarettes, like selling CDs, like playing with toy guns, like reaching for your license and registration, like just fucking being there — are not acts punishable by death, we’ve earned a break.
So spike the eggnog with Hennessy. As Jeremih says, Fuck 2016. Here’s to hoping 2017 will be a little less god-awful.