HO HO WHO: As much as you’d really prefer to just remember Ms. Lauryn Hill as Whoopi Goldberg‘s secret weapon or the woman who wrote your favorite songs about love, life, and heartbreak at the end of the ’90s, the public’s goodwill toward Hill dwindled quickly. Somewhere between the tepid Rock the Bells appearances, the time in jail for tax evasion, and the bizarro public statements, it all fell apart. And yet somehow, 2015 wasn’t terrible for the (newly titled) Ms. Hill. Her soundtrack contributions to the Nina Simone documentary had some teeth, and she dropped “A Cradle in Bethlehem” on Christmas Day.
UNFINISHED SYMPHONY? Apparently, Hill wanted to share this song on December 25th, even though she considered it unfinished. Wait, what? The song begins with the sort of layered, twinkly musical accompaniment of samples, soft percussion, and guitar-with-wah wah pedal that screams, “Lights! Magic! Glory! Hallelujah!” That’s just in the six seconds before the track’s gospel singers show off their joyful range. How exactly is this unfinished? She already seems to have pulled out many—if not all—of the stops on this piece. Was she looking to add in strings, horns, and the kitchen sink? Surely she doesn’t feel the need to add another verse? As densely arranged as the song is currently, that would just be overkill. Neither Christmas carols nor pop songs really need to pass the three-minute mark, and this one ends at 180 seconds with a bullet.
HOLY LULLABY, MS. HILL! This overwhelming desire to go all out extends to Hill’s vocals and the vocals of her backing choir—and not necessarily in a good way. The song starts as a good lullaby should; Hill sings in soft, hushed tones near the bottom of her vocal range. As the story of the First Christmas progresses, so does Hill. She shows off her own range and when she hits those high notes, she reminds listeners how her soulful voice found its way into our hearts 15 years ago and made believers out of musical agnostics. She also shows off her penchant for melisma in a way that’s distracting and a little unsatisfying, especially when that wavering voice lands on notes aren’t in harmony with her backup singers.
CHEER FACTOR: 7/10. At its core, the ode to the holy infant is truly lovely and the underlying melody makes for a sweet lullaby. But between a few of the odd vocal choices and the stuffed-to-the-gills arrangement, this song is nearly a victim of holiday excess. Hill a capella might have been a more effective “unfinished” song.