Welcome back to the latest edition of Flashback Friday Flop, a weekly feature in which I examine a hip-hop album from years ago that was considered a flop, either critically or commercially or both, when it was released and see if it has gotten better – or worse – over time.
This week: Christmas on Death Row (1996)
By December of 1996, the once formidable Death Row Records was crumbling. Over the course of just a few months, Dr. Dre had defected, 2Pac had been killed, Suge Knight was sent to prison, and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s highly anticipated second album was a major disappointment.
Out of these ruins emerged Christmas on Death Row, a project featuring most of the label’s acts performing a combination of covers and new tracks. The ninth album released on Death Row, it sold a mere (for the time) 200,000 copies, the first in the label’s history to not reach double platinum. Reviews were also soft, aside from Rolling Stone inexplicably naming it one of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums of All Time.
For all of the criticism lobbed at Suge Knight and Death Row during its prime, no one ever called the label or its albums boring. Violent, misogynistic, crude, dangerous, but never boring.
But that’s exactly what Christmas on Death Row is. It’s predictable. It’s cool to have a label with a reputation such as this put out an album that includes “Frosty the Snowman,” “The Christmas Song,” “O Holy Night,” “White Christmas” and more classics but those songs have been done – and done better – countless times.
In terms of the original songs, the output is mixed. Nate Dogg and Butch Cassidy bring their unique voices to “Be Thankful,” but it is such a slow song that isn’t helped by thirty seconds of instrumental at the start. Operation From the Bottom’s “Christmas in the Ghetto” is what most people would probably expect from an album like this, with O.F.T.B.’s members generically rapping about hard times during the holidays over a generic Dre-like beat. Sean “Barney” Thomas and J-Flexx’s “Party 4 Da Homies” is so saccharine, even for a Christmas track, that it could cause diabetes.
The project’s strongest moments come at the start. Tha Dogg Pound’s “I Wish” is a rare moment of vulnerability from Daz Dillinger and Kurupt as the two rhyme about wishing they had love during Christmas and is saved from melodrama by the genuine emotion the two pour out on the record.
Still, it pales in comparison to the opening track, “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto.” The title of Snoop’s lone contribution to the project was first introduced by James Brown and is by far its best song. He is joined by his cousin Daz, Tray Deee, and Bad Azz with a classic Nate Dogg hook that was made even better by its video:
This could have been a CD single featuring “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto” and “I Wish” with maybe one cover song and it would’ve had the same impact.
Previously in Flashback Friday Flop:
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.