Tracking down the original version of the Kanye West- and Teyana Taylor-helmed “Christmas In Harlem” is far harder than it ought to be. Unless you’re careful, you’ll end up on a major streaming service, listening to the three-minute song that includes only West, Taylor, and CyHi the Prince. It’s fine, but it’s a pale imitation of the original. You really need to be listening to the nine minute cut that featured Cam’ron, Jim Jones, Vado, Pusha-T, Musiq Soulchild, and Big Sean. So, in the spirit of the season, let’s embrace nostalgia. Here is the full-length version of the song, buried in the middle of a ripped-off DatPiff mixtape:
It’s twinkly and grand, propelled by an effortlessly soulful beat that, via some miracle, sounds Christmassy without resorting to any of the most obvious holiday cheat codes. There’s no unnecessary jangling, no reinterpretations of old-fashioned carols. Hit-Boy built the song out of four samples—the crackling gospel-funk of Joe Tex’s “Papa Was Too”, Shuggie Otis’s lugubrious “Strawberry Letter 23,” and Marvin Gaye’s inevitably romantic “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”—none of which sound at all wintry. But the spare piano over the top and the background strings line up perfectly. It conjures the joyful spirit of A Motown Christmas while still sounding completely modern.
West can take the credit for figuring that out. Hit-Boy, then an underground producer looking for a leg up, had been sending beats to Kanye via a proxy for months, hoping that something might sneak onto his sprawling fifth LP, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It was only on the night of the Twisted Fantasy release party that November that Kanye’s cousin, Ricky, called Hit-Boy to tell him that Kanye wanted the beat for a Christmas song. “I never really heard it as a Christmas song,” the producer told Vibe after the song first leaked onto the internet, “but when Kanye heard it, he said it sounded like some classic Christmas music.”
With the beat locked in, the ensemble cast was free to riff. Kanye had fun with it, opening up with a few sweet-enough lines about Christmas sex: “My only question is, ‘Where my presents?’ / She said, Shhh,’ she got a gift for me that ain’t for the kids to see.” It set the tone for a song in which even the dumbest boasts came shot through with a little sweetness. Vado bragged about his cars and his jewelry, but ended up getting a “peck kiss” from someone he saw as “special.” CyHi was miles away from his Chicago home, but he knew it was “pretty” on the East Coast. Even Push, who couldn’t help help but rap about moving heroin on the holidays, rifled off a line about New York feeling like his home in Virginia. Taylor held the track together and kept things humble in the hook: “Even though we ain’t ballin’ / Feels like we bought it all.” “Christmas in Harlem” was, as Craig Jenkins wrote for Noisey three years back, “about making the most of what you have when you might not have too much.”
Beneath the surface, though, the song iswasjust as much about Christmastime reconciliation. Kanye managed to get Dipset icons (and known Christmas authorities) Jim Jones and Cam’Ron on the track, and while their verses fit the tone perfectly—Jones played the ghost of Christmas past, rapping about days when money was tight, while Cam’Ron decided to wish his lawyers a Happy Hanukkah—it was more about what went unsaid. Just three months earlier, The Diplomats had remixed Kanye’s newly-released “Runaway,” repackaging it as a diss track. Cam’Ron’s lines were vicious: “And Kanye, you a sucka nigga / Dissed Dame [Dash], so my attitude is fuck the nigga / Sucking Jigga, how you gon’ live with that? / Took the beat, now come get it back.”
Despite that shot, it was Cam’Ron who got his hands on the “Christmas in Harlem” beat first. As Jones told MTV News in 2010: “Cam called me, sent me the beat, I did my part, sent it back to Cam and he took care of the rest of the business.” If Kanye intended that as a peace offering, then it worked perfectly. Jones told MTV that Dipset had known Kanye for years, that they were close with his then-tour manager Don C, and that they even had a “great rapport” with Ye and his team. “I don’t think people took what we did so serious more than it was [just the] art of the music that we do,” he said. “I guess Cam had something on his mind but it wasn’t really a life-or-death situation. And I know Kanye’s a very smart person, he’s got a great spirit, so it’s great that he chose to look past anything that was going on. I appreciate it.”
Maybe West just wasn’t in the mood for antagonism. He’d spend much of the year recording in Hawaii, experimenting, collaborating, throwing ideas around an island paradise. “Christmas in Harlem” marked the end of that year’s G.O.O.D Friday series, one of the most brilliant streaks in modern mainstream rap. He’d released fifteen new standalone songs already that year, four of which eventually made it onto Twisted Fantasy. Almost every other track that Kanye released from that late-summer through the fall was proof that he was in an incredible groove, sharing space with RZA, Jay-Z, Justin Bieber, Mos Def, and dozens of others. He was the most exciting musician in the world. Petty spats probably just seemed like a distraction.
Or perhaps, as Jones told MTV, he just needed two more real Harlemites to balance out the track’s Midwestern core. “Shit, if I was Kanye I would’ve called us too,” he said. “It don’t make sense. If they from Chicago, they would’ve made ‘Christmas in Chicago’ then, right?”
I don’t think that has the same ring to it. And, besides, Hit-Boy’s beat will always sound like uptown Manhattan—a little luxury in the face of turmoil, hanging out underneath the blinding lights of skyscrapers a few blocks away.
Alex Robert Ross’s only question is, “Where my presents?” Follow him on Twitter.