Michael Christmas is at a crossroads. “Failed class after failed class, I should be a stripper,” he jokes with tongue in cheek on “What’s Happening” from his first full-length project, Is This Art? But there’s truth in all jest – Christmas is so desperate to make something of himself that stripping is enough of a possibility to mention it.
That self-deprecation lies at the heart of Is This Art? and immediately allows Christmas to drop his guard and the listener to warm up to him. We may not know what it’s like to drive Benzes and spend a year’s worth of salary on a piece of jewelry, but we can identify with getting yelled at by a parent or feeling like a worthless piece of shit.
Name any legendary MC and you’ll find they never truly promoted themselves as bulletproof in their music. ‘Pac professed love for his mother; Big had suicidal thoughts; Jay often questioned his own moral compass as a drug dealer. These aren’t outward issues of image, but inward problems that everyone experiences. Who am I? Why am I here? What the fuck am I doing with my life?
Christmas isn’t sure, but he’s gonna rap his ass off while finding out. Odd Future looms in the distance of his music, whether through chords or an ambivalence to society at large. He’s an outcast, but a broke one, playing Xbox and arguing with his ex. Many of today’s rap kingpins look to demean those beneath them instead of trying to pick them up. Is This Art? breaks down that opposition – at this moment, Christmas is a searching soul, but he’s looking for the taco truck, not his one true love. He cuts through the romantic versions of Life that so many rappers paint in baroque. They take themselves too seriously. Even at a time of personal crisis, Christmas is having fun. He admits as much at the end of “Taco Truck” – “Mom, if you hearing this, I’m just acting, this some theater shit.” It’s an extraordinary thing to hear from an artist in a genre obsessed with maintaining marketability. The curtain can’t be drawn back. We aren’t supposed to know that it’s all an act. We need to believe that everything we hear is true. That’s why it’s hard to come to grips with the polarities in Lil’ B’s music – we can’t tell if he’s serious or not, as if it matters.
“Daily” and “Drunk” might be the most fascinating back-to-back rap tandem in 2014. The first is a day in the life of the Roxbury, Boston rapper, but all that really happens is he scrolls Instagram, burns his mouth with a Hot Pocket, jerks off, and appreciates the breeze when he steps outside – “This some fucking air.” What other rapper is talking about stepping outside and being grateful for the air? He ends the song with a hint of depression – “I woke up feeling shitty and it wasn’t my choice.” Then he mimics the sound of a clock for 20 seconds as it ticks on the track. Strange, to say the least, but it’s as if he’s drawing out the seconds of his life, like when you’re at work or in class, staring at the clock, praying that time can somehow speed up.
“Drunk” is what happens when you’re finally free from your 9-5 (more like 8-6 these days), as Christmas drowns himself in alcohol and then narrates his interior monologue. He throws up, he wishes he had girls, he settles for weed and pizza. Again, it’s not what you expect. Rappers aren’t supposed to vomit from too much liquor – we’re only supposed to hear about the bottles getting popped and the swarming groupies. That’s a good way to distance yourself from fans, but Is This Art? invites listeners closer. It is, in a word, charming.
By the project’s end, it feels like you’ve spent a day with Michael Christmas, boozing and watching Dave Chappelle and Andy Milonakis videos. He even shouts out the illustrious Twitter user Bauce Sauce on “Overweight Drake.” He is as regular as regular gets.
The glue that holds his persona together is his rapping ability, but in today’s rap landscape, “skills” mean bupkis when everyone and their mom can study patterns and imitate the greats. You need to do more than just rap well because rapping well gets boring as fuck very quickly. You need to be different if you want to stick out.
The essence of Christmas’ difference is he’s just another dude. He happens to be working his ass off at this rapping thing, and it’s starting to pay off. Hopefully he stays true to himself. His singularity is starting to turn heads.