Album Review: The Hamilton Mixtape

I think about Hamilton a lot.

It’d be fair to call that catching up, since I ignored it more or less through 2015 when I started hearing about it from people I used to work with in theater. I wrote Hamilton off at the time as the newest Hot New Musical: the consciously, thoroughly modern show that’s irreverent but not too irreverent, timely without being too timely, and will spend the next year and a half being obsessed over by theater kids while getting reduced to its elevator pitch whenever it appears in popular culture (examples: “Wicked! You know, the Wicked Witch of the West, but her story!”, “The Book of Mormon! you know, Mormons, but by the South Park guys!”, and “Spring Awakening! You know, Rent but shittier!”). And, let’s just be honest, Hamilton‘s pitch–“You know, the Founding Fathers, but with hip-hop!”–inspires the worst sort of kneejerk reaction; even Daveed Diggs, who would later win a Tony for his role in the show, admits that he told director Tommy Kail point blank that it was a terrible idea when he was first approached about it. I get that; you hear “it’s a rapping musical!” and your mind immediately goes to, “I’m Alex Hamilton, and I’m here to say/The United States needs to make a treasure-ray, I said hey!”

But Diggs reversed his opinion once he actually heard Hamilton, and so do most people. The show still has its bouts of unabashed “the hippity-hop musical” corniness (“My Shot,” the start of “Alexander Hamilton”), but the rapping is mostly solid, and more importantly, so is the music. Hamilton isn’t just rap; it also has liberal doses of R&B, soul, pop, and showtunes, and top-to-bottom, it’s musically cohesive in a way that even a lot of musicals aren’t with the way it uses recurring themes and motifs. It uses them almost like samples that pop-up in different songs with different moods (I’m thinking specifically of Eliza’s “Look around”). That synthesis is what makes Hamilton so distinct: its musical and hip-hop elements never feel at odds with each other. Like, take creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s previous show In the Heights. It has rapping in it, but it skirts the line between rap and slam poetry, and the seams between the rap and showtunes elements of it show too much. Hamilton not only combines the two in a smoother way, but its rapping has honest to God flow like what you’d hear in a normal rap song.

Not to get super in the weeds about this for a second, but it feels like because of how strongly the show pulls from musical and hip-hop tradition, we don’t use the right language to always talk about Hamilton. In theater circles, shows are usually looked at as a whole (i.e. technical design, acting, choreography, etc. are all considered) while the music is seen taken for granted. The show’s–let’s say, “highly enthused” fandom exists almost entirely inside the theater bubble, too; people who can find a Les Mis reference blindfolded and one handed, but the Death Row one gets hit and miss responses. It’s a fandom devoted to a theater project, but one that’s conspicuously written by an old head; most of draws its inspiration from ’90s rap with the slightest toe touch into the ’00s. But, even if Hamilton‘s music goes unremarked upon with the theater crowd, it’s still in better standing there than it is with popular music writing, which treats it with bemusement at best (Pitchfork’s review of the OBRC is astonished that these showtunes sound like showtunes, and openly laments the lack of radio bangers–no, I’m not kidding) to flat dismissal or snide hostility at worst. It’s like as soon as Hamilton gets tagged as musical, it’s regulated to the cheesy hell of Cats, which would be like writing off indie rock wholesale as “sounds like Pavement.”

I think about this weird, cultural blind spot whenever The Hamilton Mixtape comes up. At least intellectually, this tape attempts to de-theaterify Hamilton: it’s a hodgepodge of material ranging from fully formed covers to remixes to interludes to demos that’s supposed to replicate the loose feel of a mixtape. There’s nary a Broadway star in sight; the covers pull from pop artists (and Jimmy Fallon) while the remixes showcase East Coast veterans and underground rappers. And, like a mixtape, it is very, very long. Of course, the reality is that The Hamilton Mixtape isn’t young, scrappy, and hungry, but the end product of a fleet of professionals, but still, everyone sounds ready to play.

Setting aside my theater kid hat for a second and keeping my criticism one on, The Hamilton Mixtape has to come with the disclaimer that it won’t change your life, or likely your opinion of the show. If you’ve already tried Hamilton and decided it isn’t your thing, then hearing Andra Day sang on “Burn” probably isn’t going to convert you. If you’re new to the show, or considered listening to it, then I could see the tape being a good way to test the waters since the covers (the majority of the songs here) are faithful to a fault, although you’re missing out on the showstopper moments. For the Hamilton obsessives, the primary appeal is in the unreleased songs, demos, and the remixes that function as the DVD extras to the soundtrack, or the untitled, unmastered to the cast recording’s To Pimp a Butterfly.

A solid half of The Hamilton Mixtape consists of covers that range from “mostly fine” to “good when you’ve worn out the original.” The covers roster is full of artists like John Legend, Sia, Miguel, Ashanti, Alicia Keys, Kelly Clarkson, and Andra Day–industry types who reliably provide the 4th or 5th best performance at award show ceremonies. Sia, Miguel, and Queen Latifah’s “Satisfied” is a keeper for Latifah and Miguel’s playfulness and how the song is a bizarrely good fit for Sia’s brand of over-enunciation, and Ashanti and Ja Rule are a fitting match for the mid’00s pop-inflected “Helpless.” The most pleasant surprise is Jimmy Fallon and The Roots’ not-terrible “You’ll Be Back,” which takes King George’s ode to his colonies from merely Beatles-esque to full-blown Magical Mystery Tour deadringer. These are mostly one or two character songs (imagine the logistic nightmare of coordinating something like “Yorktown”), and the out of order nature means each song gets to be its own standalone instead of getting glossed over on the way to the next ensemble number (looking at you, “That Would Be Enough” and “History Has Its Eyes On You”). Still, they won’t replace anyone’s opinion on the originals.

Hamilton has a whopping 46 songs, and that’s after some hard cuts, some of which appear on The Hamilton Mixtape. Miranda’s original demos for “Valley Forge” and “Cabinet Battle #3” appear in their original form, and outtakes “No John Trumbull,” “An Open Letter,” and “Congratulations” were handed off to other artists. Black Thought and The Roots get “No John Trumbull” (originally meant as the intro to “Cabinet Battle #1,” which I only bring up so I can mention that “Cabinet Battle #1’s” beat actually bangs), while Watsky gets the slam diss “An Open Letter.” Dessa sings “Congratulations,” the Angelica Schuyler scorcher from act 2 that was understandably cut for time and pacing, but honestly is a compelling listen for how quick and how well it zips from anger to disappointment to damnation. “Cabinet Battle #3” wasn’t essential to the show, but boasts some fun rhyming in its first verse. Who knows how many more demos and outtakes Miranda’s sitting on, but based on what’s here, the eventual Hamilton: The Treasurer’s Vault boxset will be a treat.

The third category of songs on The Hamilton Mixtape is the most interesting: the remixes. On these, samples from the cast recording serve as the basis for wholly original rapped songs, akin to what Linkin Park did with Reanimation (coincidentally, Black Thought appears on both). Most everyone who appears on these tracks–Busta Rhymes, Nas, Snow Tha Product, Dave East, Common, Wiz Khalifa, Residente, etc.–raps hard through clenched teeth as if to imply “Like these theater kids know what rap is;” verses are treated like dunking contests that prize flare above all else. The vets alley-oop on “My Shot,” but damn if K’naan, Snow Tha Product, Riz MC and Residente’s multilingual pro-immigrant rap on “Immigrants” isn’t the best thing here. From Riz MC’s slippery confidence to K’naan’s struggle rap to Snow zigzagging from English to Spanish during her rapid first verse to Residente closing it all out in Spanish, everyone sounds great over a beat equal parts massive bass, marching snare, and a clever “Immigrants, we get the job done”/”Not. Yet.” sample. They’re varied, from the dour “Wrote My Way Out” with Nas, David East, and Lin-Manuel Miranda himself to Wiz Khalifa’s airy “Washingtons On Your Side” (somehow not the strangest thing he’s done this year), and I realize I’m part of the small target demo on this, but fuck it, I’d hear more.

While it’s just okay as a listen, The Hamilton Mixtape serves as tangible proof that the connection between Hamilton as a phenomenon that makes music festivals look thrifty and the music that inspired it can be used by both sides. If this project continues with more volumes, it could be fun to see the different directions it could take: have The Roots rearrange a few numbers with the cast, let Metro Boomin fiddle with “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” or remix a cabinet battle or two as East Coast vs West Coast styles. Bring someone for a cover who will run in a whole new direction (Jill Scott’s “Say Yes To This” is halfway there). Hamilton isn’t going anywhere fast, so why not try to get more radical from here; surprising Broadway is easy, popular music is harder.

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About bgibs122

I enjoy music and music culture; I hope you do, too.
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