Michael Christmas / Photos by Matt Seger
Late last fall, I found myself in a conference room with Michael Christmas, sitting in front of an easel-sized notepad, looking at the words “frozen yogurt flavored ice cream.” Stupid? Sure. Kind of hilariously brilliant the more you think about it? That, too. Christmas had promised to give me ten free ideas on the spot, so here he was writing down “Rare/endangered animal petting zoo” and “REAL POKEMON GYM.” I was already sold on “transparent jeans.” He got to the end of the list, and we took a selfie. Later, I hung the list up above my boss's desk for inspiration. It was the best pitch meeting ever. I felt like a wealthy, whimsical investor. I felt great. I felt like eating a whole bowl of frozen yogurt flavored ice cream.
That is Michael Christmas’s effect on people. He's like a teddy bear full of quips about famous rappers, with a gigantic poof of a loose 'fro and a round face that lends itself to giant, cheesy grins. He exudes positivity and attracts hugs, and the way he tells stories—or maybe the way life arranges itself around him—makes them sound like sitcom plots. He's increasingly realized this about himself: When I saw him again earlier this week, he framed his new album, What a Weird Day, as taking a sitcom-like approach of offering incredulous commentary on the constantly shifting routines of his life. He described his close friend, the relentlessly goofy rapper OG Swaggerdick, who for much of this year was his upstairs neighbor in LA, as his Kramer. Absurd plot lines seem to spill out of him.
For instance: “I was doing a headband thing for a little bit,” he told me last year. “I had my headband in my pocket that I'd just bought from American Apparel. I go into this Wendy's, and I go upstairs and there's a group of high school kids, sitting out eating. They're like ‘yo, you're Michael Christmas, you're ill bro.’ They're dapping me up, and we take a picture and I'm like ‘hold on.’ I take out my headband and put it on for the picture. One of the kids is like ‘Ohhhhhhhhhh!’ He goes in his pocket and pulls out the exact same headband.” When Michael Christmas tells stories like this, his eyes widen. Can you believe what's happening? Because he sure can't.
Christmas’s happy-go-lucky enthusiasm has helped him steadily build a fan base and profile over the last few years, and it's served him well as he's weathered the transition from high school dropout and teenage social outcast in Boston to now, at 21, one of the country's most touted young rappers. He's suddenly a part of the indie rap in-crowd: What a Weird Day includes features from the likes of Mac Miller, D.R.A.M., and Logic, who brought Christmas on tour earlier this year. And he's evolved as an artist, rounding out not only his sound but also his perspective. His breakout song, “Daily,” released in the fall of 2013, was a deadpan, tongue-in-cheek play-by-play account of a regular day, and it instantly stood out among heavily aestheticized, self-serious blog fare for its simplicity and humor. It came with a stupidly literal video directed by the song's producer and Christmas’s good friend Ian Goodwin, and it established exactly who Christmas was, setting the tone for a follow-up single, “Michael Cera,” as well as his drily funny mixtape the next spring, Is This Art?
“I went from doing 12 shows last year to doing like 76 to 80 this year,” Christmas told me this week, marveling at, in keeping with the title of his album, the lack of regularity to his days. “That’s a huge difference.” During that period Christmas has clearly grown more comfortable not only with who he is but with how to express that. “I sing on the album,” he explained. “[I] talk about a lot of personal shit, which has like always been my thing, but I’m not just talking about all of it in a funny way.” It's not much of a leap to imagine how the same kids who were drawn to the straightforward everyman character on Is This Art? might connect to a version of Christmas who is simultaneously funnier and more emotionally vulnerable, even more open in portraying himself as an atypical character in music.
“Imagine being so outcast bullies didn't want to fuck with you,” he explained to me last year. “I was so in the cut bullies were just like, 'We can't have any fun with him; he doesn't say or do anything!' I always made it a point to make friends with a couple people in every school I went to that were the weirdest kids, the quietest kids. I always found we had something in common, something we listened to, something we watched... People thought I was sad all the time, but I wasn't, they just didn't get me.” With What A Weird Day, “It’s me saying that this weird kid, who walked around this city invisible for 20 years of his life is now being seen everywhere,” he mused more recently. He went on to add, “For you to be used to keeping your head down your whole life, you’re used to not talking to anybody for a whole day at a time, like at all, and now you’ve got strangers, strange girls pop up at Starbucks—don’t even say hi to you just pull up with their phone and take a picture with you... it’s weird.”
That perspective gives his music a pretty powerful narrative subtext not often found in hip-hop, where larger-than-life personae tend to be the rule and success is often treated as something between a by-any-means goal and a foregone conclusion. On “Look Up / Save The Day,” Christmas quips, like a Kendrick Lamar full of anime puns, “niggas always want to know where you from, man / the only thing different between us is that gun, damn (Gundam).” The song's worried hook is probably the cleverest metaphor anyone's rapped all year: “look up / it ain't no stars in the hood.”
“Every day I really feel like I’ma wake up in eighth grade,” Christmas told me this week. “And I’m gonna still have the fade. I’m still gonna be wearing the blue fucking uniform that says Mission Grammar on the chest, and I’m still gonna be in my classroom not doing homework, not doing classwork, but writing raps in my composition notebook. Because all this is—I really felt helpless. I felt helpless in 2012 and every year before that. I felt helpless. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to rap. But how does one become a rapper in Boston? How do you become the rapper in Boston? I just had no idea how I was going to do it.”
Christmas kicked off his rap career, such as it was, in an after school program in seventh grade that offered a recording club, channeling an intense love for Soulja Boy (“I had Bapes!” he noted) into making beats. He rapped one song, with his friend next to him in the booth yelling the ad libs, and decided it was his passion. A sympathetic chemistry teacher his freshman year let him record “Exhibit C” freestyles in the classroom, and he continued to write raps.
At 16, he came up with the name Michael Christmas and went to his first open mic; such events soon opened the door to a Boston rap community he hadn't known about. He met OG Swaggerdick, who invited him over to Goodwin's to record, and Tim Larew, a local blogger and college student who would eventually become his manager. The group were kindred spirits, united not only in their love of artists like Dom Kennedy and Lil B but also in their frustration with the Boston hip-hop scene, which has traditionally hewed close to lyrically focused, conservative East Coast underground ideals. “The same shit they're telling you, they were doing ten years ago,” Christmas explained. “So you feel stuck. Then you meet people who aren't from there who show love and interest. It becomes like 'Somebody gives a fuck.'”
“Between the ages of zero and 19 I had relatively no friends,” Christmas explained last fall. “I became friends with these dudes: They're like my first real friends, really. I had 'friends' that I chilled with when I was in school, but these are my first real friends, people I call brothers. I was alone my whole life, especially through school. So now I have people around me, looking forward to seeing me, want me to make them laugh. People never got my brand of humor, never got my brand of music. They never understood the music I listen to. I like to think I'm making the world more tolerant. They're becoming more open to shit, and I like to think I'm playing a role in that. Nothing's sus anymore, nothing's gay anymore, nothing's stupid anymore, everything is just open. Everybody's happy. I want people to smile more, stop being against everything. Just laugh, smile. Enjoy the world that you're in.”
Things had been going poorly for Christmas in his personal life at the time, too: His dad, whom he considers his best friend, was sent to jail for a year and a half, and the loss was devastating. He stopped going to school, and, musically, he channeled his frustration into a project called Fuck a Mixtape. “I started looking at the world as this evil, fucked up place,” Christmas recalled. “That's where all of that came from. When they took my dad away, I was pissed.” But the time passed quickly, and, in true Christmas fashion, he's since spun it into something funny, describing the way his dad would try to convince the other guys in prison to listen to the Cool Kids and recounting how he came back really avid about working out. “I remember waking up one day and he was just doing pushups, in the middle of my living room,” Christmas described. “I'm like 'what are you doing?!' He did pushups and made some nasty ass oatmeal; he was still eating jail food.”
Naturally, the rapper's family life can sound like a sitcom, too: His dad and his stepdad are close friends, and his mom gets exasperated with them for playing video games; he has a bevy of younger siblings, including a little sister who makes a cameo in “Michael Cera” as an accidental Lil B fan; he still has to take out the trash even though he's verified on Twitter (his mom, who is Puerto Rican, was unmoved by his plea that she would not make the similarly verified Jennifer Lopez do the same). He describes a childhood of being more or less his dad's wise-cracking sidekick.
As he got more into rap, he realized that same sense of humor was a major asset. “I always tried to apply [rap] to my real life, which happens to be fucking hilarious because I'm losing all the time,” he explained. That humor is part of what made him stand out in those early open mics: “You'll remember a tough ass bar for like 20 minutes, but if I did something hilarious, you'll remember that shit the next time you see me.” That cheerful approachability endeared him to Larew, too, who pointed out the context in which they met. “Meeting all these dudes from Boston, people are so thirsty to get their shit heard,” he said. “He doesn't want me to hear the music as much as he just likes being around people. I think that's his allure in general.”
“He is himself, literally the same dude since I've met him—ashy AF!” OG Swaggerdick wrote me, adding that Christmas has “a good heart” and is “always helping.” What a Weird Day captures that charm: It's predominantly silly and purposeful in stretching Christmas's range, other than a couple unengaging, rap-heavy tracks in its final third, but it's tender, too, particularly on “I Wrote a Poem” and “Smoke.” He cavorts gleefully alongside D.R.A.M., dropping ad libs like “I'm moving to Alaska. I'ma find me a Eskimo bitch never heard of Michael Christmas,” boasting and cracking self-deprecating jokes in equal measure. The gnarly, bass-heavy “Hate,” which might turn into a total shit-talking rant in a less imaginative rapper's hands, undercuts itself with the refrain “keep them expectations low though.” A running joke in his music is his total lack of success with the opposite sex, a clear defiance of the safe genre narrative. Christmas’s music doesn't shy away from mentioning masturbation and making asides like “running through the six with no hoes.” “One More” unceremoniously portrays the part of partying that involves crashing on other people's floors. You'd be hard-pressed to find another rap album that so eloquently captures the spirit of being young and minorly and occasionally feeling yourself. Its humor is celebratory, and the story underlying everything is a redemption narrative of a kid finding his place in the world, the cast of characters in his sitcom.
The whole thing feels inextricable from Christmas's day-to-day commentary: And sure enough, in discussing it this week, those funny stories kept unspooling, with everything from a quest to get lotion and body wash that morning to a story about Skepta showing up in his apartment (“Skepta’s smoking on my balcony right now; I’m in my damn basketball shorts without the pockets on ‘em and my dusty ass T-shirt,” Christmas riffed) getting equal billing. “I’m going to talk about all these experiences, and I’m going to have a lot of fun doing it,” he said. “I’m going to get out of my comfort zone, and I’m going to make people realize that you can be a weird kid that nobody likes in your city and in the world and turn into that weird kid that everybody likes and wants to be like. You just have to accept it first.” That doesn't mean he's just another guy, though. What A Weird Day has suddenly put him on a new level, musically, and Christmas is excited to rise to the occasion.
“I don’t even really know how to tie my shoes more than I know how to make music,” he quipped. “I can make music. I can’t tie my shoes. You see this shit?” He pointed down at his shoes, white hi-top Vans, which, sure enough, were loosely laced, with knots that definitely fell short of proper bows. “It’s a terrible tie. A terrible tie! Doesn’t matter because I can rap. I can make these fucking songs, boy.”
What a Weird Day is out today. Order it on iTunes here. It becomes a free download on Monday.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.