Mainstream holiday pop music this year has, as ever, been a bit shit. Tyler, The Creator's remake of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" is the type of off-beat novelty that I imagine people listening to and enjoying this time next year, but new releases from Jessie J, Katy Perry, and John Legend have all amounted to the musical manifestation of a shrug. Even Sia's "My Old Santa Claus," which tries to lead with its idiosyncrasies, sounds like it was constructed specifically not to distract anyone elbowing a random stranger at a department store.
Thankfully, Rae Sremmurd's Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi released one new song each yesterday. (Ear Drummers and Rae Sremmurd are listed as collaborators on both tracks; maybe watching the explainer video a dozen more times will clear it up). They are both batshit. They both lack focus and polish. They both deserve to be canonized.
Slim Jxmmi's "Nothing For Christmas" is the more upbeat of the two, a skittery, hyperactive song that contradicts itself repeatedly. In fact, after chanting "Your bad ass ain't gettin nothin for Christmas" to his girlfriend for 30 whole seconds, Slxm Jimmi introduces the first verse by rapping, "Let me contradict myself." He's trying to shop for his girl, but he clearly can't concentrate, and his indecision is taking him down some strange paths. Despite her saying in the intro that she wants "a new fit and some Gucci shoes," Jxmmi tells us that he ends up buying Chanel. He takes his girlfriend to get breast implants, but she wants ass implants, and so he takes her to Benihana for some reason. It all happens over a minimal, sleigh bell-heavy Mike WiLL Made-It/Resource beat, so it should be enough to ignore what Jxmmi's saying and just appreciate the way in which he's saying it. But the chorus is bizarre no matter how you shout it. The whole song seems like an overreaction his girlfriend's bad handwriting: "Girl, show me your wishlist / I can't read your wishlist / Your bad ass ain't gettin' nothin' for Christmas."
The real classic-in-waiting, though, is Swae Lee's "Christmas at Swae's," a professional reworking of a video the rapper posted to Twitter last Christmas Day. This one's a piano ballad, replete with wind chimes, lashings of reverb, and the inevitable Auto-Tune on his aching vocals. "I didn't have you under my tree this Christmas," he sings, "But I had you all over my wish list." Not happy with two holiday markers, he adds a third: "Whoah-oh-oh / You're not under my mistletoe."
It gets even harder to follow from there: "I was standing by the fire / Thinking I should write her / Doves cry from a songbird," he sings, a skinny, blue Sinatra for a generation of SoundCloud kids. Time and place are fluid and December becomes January: "Skipping heartbeats, it's my turn / Light a candle, wish you were here / What a way to start the new year." Best of all is the line that Rolling Stone's Charles Holmes identified as "Paramore-esque," a teary-eyed, PG-13 regret: "Disappear into my nightmare / I expected you to stay there.” The beat never drops. "The weather outside is cold."
At first, "Christmas at Swae's" doesn't seem to belong in the pantheon of great, bummed-out, heartbroken holiday songs. It's clumsy and confused, caught between four or five different cliches. Swae wants his faraway lover both beneath the tree and beneath the mistletoe. Again, "the weather outside is cold." This is the Instagram Story of maudlin winter songs.
But that's precisely why it deserves to be vaunted immediately to the top of the Billboard Charts, included on every Christmas compilation CD, and pumped out of every shopping mall speaker system from now until the end of time. "Christmas at Swae's" could only have been made now, in the emo-rap era, by a hyperactive, openly sensitive kid with a massive social media following. It sounds deeply odd, with its overcompressed vocals ripped straight out of a viral video, brushing up against Mike Will's swirling piano. And, above all, Swae seems to care. "I gave you the world / Lord knows I tried / Lord knows that I tried / Lord knows I tried," he cries at the end, drifting off into the back of the mix.
Liz Pelly argued earlier this year that most listeners are being driven to background music—something that, she figured, amounted to Muzak. We need musical wallpaper, something utterly inoffensive, something that we can leave on without thinking. "Playlists have spawned a new type of music listener," she wrote, "one who thinks less about the artist or album they are seeking out, and instead connects with emotions, moods and activities, where they just pick a playlist and let it roll." Never is that clearer than at Christmas, when dinner-table compromise is key and most people feel at least a twinge of anxiety about the season. A bland, honey-voiced charmer can remake "Let It Snow" and bring in many times more streams than most of the artists on The Noisey Advent Calendar. Safety first.
Rae Sremmurd have no interest in that whatsoever. They've free-associated some vaguely wintery thoughts, stuck with their weirdest instincts, and made a couple of songs that would likely piss off more than half of your family on December 25. "Nothing for Christmas" and, in particular, "Christmas at Swae's" are both odd. They're of their moment. They don't sound like they belong anywhere except Rae Sremmurd's IG. That alone means that they belong in the Christmas canon.
Whoah-oh-oh, Alex Robert Ross is on Twitter.