Reviewed by Johan Palme on 7th December, 2015
The cheerfulness and happy memories that sit at the heart of Christmas makes it a particularly devastating backdrop for tragic songs – somehow, the happiness acts as strong, ironic contrast, underlining the darkness and pain. Indeed, some of the absolutely finest tragic love songs in the history of popular music are set during Christmas, from Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” to Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love (Christmas for the Brokenhearted)”.
And then, much less widely known, there’s the magnificent “Christmas Without My Girl” by Gerald Levert. Starting with just vague unease, in a devastasting, present-tense progression of verses, it becomes clearer and clearer that the protagonist’s breakup is final.
It’s a perfect capsule of holiday angst, on a very special album. In 1996, ascending RnB producer Jermaine Dupri had still relatively recently launched his own label and had since scored platinum with its first three albums. Not content to provide more of the same, defying all expectations, Durpi’s fourth album on the label was a really well-worked-through Christmas record – and what a record it is! All but two of the songs are newly written, and a great mix of artists do them justice: veterans like Gerald Levert and Chaka Khan have wonderful efforts here, as do established label stars Xscape. And the album introduces the first recordings of two artists that themselves would go on to be million-sellers: Jagged Edge and a 15-year-old Alicia Keys.
And if anything shows Jermaine Dupri was making a serious statement when he put out the record, it’s this: The Gerald Levert track is not alone. This is an album full of beautiful, well-sung, but ultimately tragic songs. Just like Christmas should be.