“Am I a piece of shit?”
I ask myself this question more times in a day than is probably healthy. Every awkward interaction with a stranger on the street, every minute I’m late to meet with a friend or even taking a break from writing these words you’re reading right now, this thought creeps into my head in ways that no amount of Hey Arnold! life lessons could’ve prepared me for. In these uncertain times, unwarranted shitty feelings are the cherry on top of the fuckshit.
It truly helps to know that you’re not the only one on the receiving end of fate, though. That’s why Michael Christmas’ “Not The Only One”—the first single from his upcoming sophomore album—felt like a gust of fresh air when it dropped back in April. It’s easily the bounciest song you’ll ever hear about living off the grid and losing games of NBA 2K.
The Durkin-produced song is a showcase for Christmas as the most extroverted introvert in the rap game, a showman caught between anxiety and well-earned nights of sleeping through Dragon Ball reruns. Not to say that the story behind the song is in any way tame:
“I was in high school, I was a freshman. I was hangin’ out with my homies and they started talking about porn and shit and bringing up porn stars I knew and scenes that I had seen. None of my friends had even talked about porn at any point before that and I thought I was a disgusting being. I’m, like, really knowledgable when it comes to porn, so the fact that all these older kids were also knowledgeable about it made me think that I’m not the only disgusting kid in this school. That made me realize that a lot of the weird shit I do is really the weird shit we do.”
As told by anyone else, that story might sound off-putting, but Christmas has made a career from spinning jolly out of awkward. His first big single, “Michael Cera,” worked as many Arrested Development and Superbad references as possible around the story of approaching a girl with no money but good bacon. The song was placed on his debut project, Is This Art?, which featured Christmas’ face superimposed over the statue of David on the cover.
There’s an air of humored distance that floats over Christmas’ best stories that can immediately anchor any listener fortunate enough to have survived stiff arguments with parents over corner store runs and unpaid bills. I’ve walked through the hot summer day of “What’s Happenin’”—full of bad Dollar Menu trips and friends with worse jokes—more times than I can count, sometimes laughing and shuddering all at once. He’s the funniest, sympathetic ear I’ve ever encountered.
The son of a Puerto Rican mother and Black father, Christmas grew up behind apartment windows on Warren Street in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. His mom would keep him in the house for his own safety, so he’d spend lots of time devouring movies and TV. When he did go outside, though, it would be on Newbury Street with friends. “Newbury Street was kind of my escape point because I couldn’t go outside. [My parents] didn’t want me in the street like that,” said Christmas. “Me and a couple people, we’d go over to Newbury, go to the mall, eat Japanese food, the cheap little extra meat plate. That’s why that area is so sacred to me.”
Even over the phone, I can feel Christmas’ eyes light up every time he tells a story. I can feel his zest for life in the way he described watching American Pimp for the first time (“Rich ass nigga, hair gelled back and shit, mad jewelry on with these white dudes. That shit was looks.”); the concrete beneath his feet while he sipped baby Hennessy bottles on Newbury over Easter weekend; or in the way he described the perfect Waffle House bacon, egg and cheese biscuit, which he stopped to grab near the end of our talk.
Christmas’ exuberance is about the only thing that hasn’t changed in the three years since he dropped Is This Art? Co-signs ranging from Mac Miller and D.R.A.M. to Krondon and Thelonious Martin began to trickle down. He’s released two albums and an EP and toured the country a handful of times, most recently wrapping up a stint on Pigeons & Planes’ first-ever nationwide No Ceilings tour. He moved out of his parents’ house and into an apartment where he and his girlfriend blast music so loud you can hear it through the laundry room ceiling downstairs. But one of his biggest looks of all started with a phone call from Burger King: they’d heard Christmas’ music and thought he’d be the perfect voice to sell their Jalapeño Chicken Fries.
BK paid for studio time to record the song but were hands-off when it came time to shoot the video. “The only thing [Burger King] sent was a big ass bag of chicken fries and instructions for the video. The rest was up to us,” he said. Burger King didn’t even send cooking instructions so the spontaneity of the commercial felt real. Fast food companies are all about the bottom line, but there’s a sincerity behind his smile that the Burger King could never produce.
The short burst of an ad inspired Christmas’ jump into the director’s chair for his “Not The Only One” video—which he co-directed with Hunter Lyon. He spends most of the video reliving the last day of his life in the style of The Hangover, starting with a bottle of Hennessey and bouncer chokeholds and ending asleep on a highrise with sneakers stuffed onto side rails. The real struggles are much more mundane: being scared of failure because you know you’re not built for the trap; being yelled at over unwashed dishes; wondering if you little sister’s friends think you’re lame. It’s the little things that invade Christmas’ thoughts when his only company is a blunt and some cushions, feelings that no one between the ages of 16-25 should try to deny.
“You know you need to be up at a certain time, but you hit the snooze. Then you hit the snooze again. Then you say 'I’m a piece of shit' and you just don’t know why. And that’s what I’m sayin’: Why are we like this? What is it that makes us this way. And you feel really bad about it; you feel so bad about not being able to get right that you realize that it’s no way I’m the only person who feels like everyone else is perfect and I’m just dumb. And that’s when you’re like 'Damn, life is hard.' You’ll open the fridge and some shit’ll just fall out and explode and you’re just like 'Why me?'”
These everyday struggles can be even harder to overcome when racism is added to the mix. The end of our conversation veered toward Black Boy Joy and if you know Christmas, you know that his infectious smile is usually paired with cohorts like OG Swaggerdick and DJ Muyi Fresco on Instagram and Snapchat. Three Black faces beaming through roast and studio sessions in equal measure, almost defiantly so. Unapologetic Blackness. But racism is unavoidable in a world where childhood innocence and the right to live is routinely denied to millions with darker skin. Christmas avoids talking about it on his Twitter, but he opened up during our conversation in unexpected ways.
"I lowkey think a lot of racism comes from jealousy and being upset about your differences. You don’t accept that our shit’s different and our shit’s fun; your shit can be fun, too. I love doing white people shit, white people shit is awesome. But I don’t like that sometimes white people don’t like us. That shit bothers me all the time."
Christmas told me that he first started to seriously consider race and racism after watching Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing on HBO while home from school. He cited the scene in Sal’s Pizzeria—when John Turturro’s Pino was explaining to Lee’s Mookie how his celebrity idols (Eddie Murphy, Prince, Magic Johnson) transcended being “niggas” by being “better than Black”—as the one that made it his favorite movie for a while. It’s the thought of embracing everything about Black culture except the people that created it that set him off. “Do you just have an issue with me because you don’t know me?” he asked. “If I was the coolest motherfucker, would you be like 'I hate all Black people except this one?'”
Christmas recently read Anupa Mistry’s FADER piece about Nav using “nigga” on his self-titled XO Records debut and was intrigued by how attractive the word is to people of other races who can’t or won’t understand its context; how people from other cultures attach themselves to the hypermasculine image hip-hop culture can put forth without realizing that it’s being rocked as a reflex to outside oppression. “It’s the most bizarre thing to me in the world that this word that was the most evil world in the whole English language—when you heard that word you cringed and wanted to hit them in the fucking face—and now, it’s the coolest thing to call your friend,” he explained to me. “When did it become fire?”
The question splashed me like a Kamehameha wave. When did it become fire? What inspired Bill Maher to jokingly refer to himself as a “house nigger” on his HBO show? What spurred Killer Mike and Whoopi Goldberg to tacitly defend it? What compels non-black figures like Fat Joe, DJ Khaled, YesJulz or even Action Bronson to go out of their way to use a word that’s not theirs? And why do we accept it?
Neither of us has the answer to any of those questions, but Christmas got it off his chest with a happy resolve: “Always be unapologetic about who you are because you come from something beautiful.” As anxious as he feels on the inside, he wears his Black Boy Joy like few others in this industry.
He’s reached a point in his career where Adventure Time, home upkeep, racism and a growing fan base are taking up the same space in his everything burrito, and his sophomore album, which is on the horizon, will continue to navigate the murky waters of young adulthood with a smile. He’s the pop culture-savvy everyman who wants to shine so everyone else in his circle can, too.
I want him to figure it out because he is us. Whether he’s playing video games on Twitch or relishing the art of the ad lib, Michael Christmas makes being down to earth feel larger than life.