Three years ago today, Chance The Rapper became the first unsigned artist to perform as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. I was subletting a studio apartment in Midtown Manhattan, a 12-by-12 room that had cable TV, a shower, a hot plate, and not a lot else. I stayed up that night to watch Chance's performance, which I guess was being shot four or five blocks away. I was huddled under a blanket on the couch, as far away from the brittle, frozen windows as I could get. It was my first December in New York, and it felt exactly the way I always thought December in New York should feel: bitterly cold, a little lonely, completely rescued by whatever was on the TV.
Chance played a new song, "Somewhere in Paradise," though the performance will always be remembered for the alternate version of "Sunday Candy" that he debuted that night. Backed by Nico Segal and The Social Experiment, with Jamila Woods leading the six-piece gospel choir, Chance slowed it down, adding a few sleigh bells to the intro, doing away with theatrical pep, reducing the first verse to balladry, focusing on the soulful church organ core of the choruses. He turned "Sunday Candy," which already bordered on festive, into a Christmas song. And it's never really been anything else since.
Chance would visit the White House a year later to perform the same, soft remake of "Sunday Candy" at the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony. The song’s tender feel fit the occasion nicely, but it seems heavier, watching it back now, seeing Chance perform at Barack Obama’s White House, in the era of the First White President. It's now a little moment in American history that needs to be preserved. It's a reminder that both the President and pop culture once tried to reflect America's people and complicated past. "There was something distinctly special, and spiritual, about it," Sheldon Pearce wrote at Pitchfork. "A prodigious and cheery 'mixtape rapper' singing modern psalms and praises on the national stage at the behest of the first black President of the United States in his last days; the convergence of a God Dream and the American Dream."
It would have seemed bizarre three years ago to suggest that the song would become a quiet opposition to a country in turmoil. Released on Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment's spotty but occasionally transcendent 2015 LP Surf, "Sunday Candy" is a song for Chance's grandmother, written out of total joy, just for the sake of it: "I've got a feature so I'm singing for my grandma / You sing it too, but your grandma ain't my grandma." It's made up of little details and ecstatic praises: "I come to church for the candy, your peppermints is the truth…" "Hella holes in my stocking holding your pockets in place…" "You're my dreamcatcher, dream team, team captain…"
Jamila Woods plays Chance's grandmother in the chorus, drawing from biblical imagery, singing in a joyful, breathy soprano: "Come on in this house, cause it's gonna rain / Rain down, Zion / It's gonna rain." With the choir in the slowed-down version, she's even clearer—uninterrupted by skittish drums, sitting above nothing but harmony. On "Blessings (Reprise)," released on Coloring Book in 2016, Chance sang: "I speak of wondrous unfamiliar lessons from childhood / Make you remember how to smile good." He's rarely done that quite so clearly and vividly as he did on "Sunday Candy."
There was plenty of holiday imagery baked in the song before it went to SNL and the White House. For Chance, nothing says family comfort like "Christmas for dinner, fifty rolls on my plate"; his grandmother is "Praying with her hands tight, president of my fan club, Santa." He'd draw from that again in 2016 and 2017, releasing two holiday mixtapes with Jeremih— Merry Christmas Lil' Mama and Merry Christmas Lil' Mama Re-Wrapped. There's a clutch of entertaining songs on those projects that are worth listening to this year, from the poignant (Noname's heart-stopping verse on "The Tragedy") to the warm (the heartfelt piano remix to the Jackson 5 tribute "Stranger At The Table") to the silly and fun (give me a weird Hannibal Buress verse for Christmas every year, please).
But the gospel-heavy version of "Sunday Candy" will always stand out among Chance's Christmas cuts. It's a tribute to family, the sort of song that any grandmother would be thrilled to hear, the sort of thing that makes you wish you were a better grandchild either now or when you had the chance. It's also rooted in black America, the church, and a specific, less shitty, moment in America. That performance at the White House feels like a long time ago now (and the SNL set feels like another lifetime), but in context it really was just yesterday—Chance hasn't changed his hat since that night.
America still has a glimmer of hope. Three Christmases from now, that White House performance might feel more like a coda than a conclusion. In the meantime, hopefully there's food and family and something, anything, that can get you half as happy as Chance gets on "Sunday Candy."
Alex Robert Ross is on Twitter, lil mama.