Hearing Ourselves on Alicia Keys’ Santa Baby

Aarik Danielsen

When music arrives the way Alicia Keys’ new album Santa Baby does—fully formed, as if loosed during a flare of divine inspiration—listeners may be forgiven for underestimating all the choices artists make to usher their songs into being. On Santa Baby, each decision chases a vision, allowing Keys to play more than one role at a time.

Keys serves as creator, shaping these songs through instinct and will; she stands as a citizen of musical traditions that stretch beyond her; and she plays a faithful character within the greater Christmas story, acknowledging that the locus of this season—this moment—is in the heart, its rhythms propelling us toward greater faith, hope and love.

On Santa Baby (streaming exclusively on Apple Music), Keys tilts her tracklist toward the known, seven classics leavened with four originals, each a stunner in its own fashion. Among their number, “Old Memories on Christmas” is a masterclass in pop phrasing as Keys turns in the record’s strongest vocal performance. “Not Even the King” belongs among her best songwriting, whatever the season; elegant and passionate, the gospel-informed ballad testifies to love’s abiding riches.

Keys naturally places herself within a musical heritage as descendant and peer. Her breathy singspeak opens “Favorite Things,” a song honoring jazz masters while pursuing hip-hop’s neon cool. The track quotes Dave Brubeck rhythms in the piano, bows to John Coltrane—whose version remains definitive—and keeps company with the likes of Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand, and John Legend, all of whom folded the song into the Christmas canon.

Though popularized by the Eagles, “Please Come Home for Christmas” is the gut-level handiwork of singer-songwriter Charles Brown; Keys cloaks herself in his shade of chiming blues, delivering the song with melismatic vocals.

Keys concludes with “Ave Maria,” a clear gesture to Stevie Wonder, who set this precious jewel within his landmark 1967 record Someday at Christmas. Where Wonder punctuates his cinematic arrangement with a reverent, trembling harmonica solo, Keys’ quiet vocal confidence carries the weight. An ascending, wordless coo casts her as singer and instrumentalist, each measure bearing devotion. Both versions promise to steal your breath.

Each decision chases a vision, allowing Keys to play more than one role at a time.

Just as Keys created her album out of a series of particular choices, we make a thousand little decisions about how to navigate Christmas—about which cultural trappings to surround ourselves with and which to discard. Some of us surrender our choices (a choice in itself), understandably overcome by emotions the holidays bring and the distances they accentuate.

Whatever our posture, the outcomes of our choices cause us to resemble characters within the first Christmas story. At times, we echo angels, venerating God with full voice. At others, we are the Magi—though more like O. Henry’s sort—bringing what we have to the Christchild, knowing our offerings are an excuse to draw near.

Mostly, we follow in the shepherds’ footsteps. We feel unseen—and thus unworthy to bear witness. Songs like “A Long December” make more sense than “Joy to the World.” And yet we trip through the incandescence of God, a thousand times brighter than the light within “Ave Maria”—though made from the same holy matter—compelled to stumble on toward Jesus.

Even our imperceptible choices shape our experience of Christmas, yet we are left without choice in one significant way—we are characters in this great story, like it or not. This tale of the cosmos cleft to allow its maker entrance, then united again by his strange, glorious appearance, sweeps up every one of us.

Being without choice, however, does not mean losing our voice. Keys acknowledges her place within several traditions, yet uniquely shines. On “Christmas Time is Here,” she offers a luminous, light-as-air timbre. On “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” she embraces the song’s ideals and restores their gospel underpinnings. Keys is undoubtedly herself within this story.

We too keep our voices, keep ourselves, however Christmas finds us. Whether in murmurs or angel-song, we add to the musical fabric of a moment as small as an infant, yet stretched across every timeline.

Topics: Music