On December 2nd, Lin-Manuel Miranda and his army of hip hop, pop, and R&B contemporaries dropped the Hamilton Mixtape. The release, while planned well in advance of political controversy, came mere weeks after Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended the musical and was treated to a stern but emotive speech courtesy of the cast.
The musical has never been shy about its goal to illuminate modern race relations in America. Using rap and hip hop to propel itself into the mainstream, Hamilton draws connections between the Founding Fathers’ working-class rhetoric and the racially- and ethnically-diverse backbone of the present-day American workforce (“immigrants: we get the job done”). It brings to light the all-white version of the Revolutionary War taught in history classes by insisting on a cast of minorities (the original leads were Latino [Lin-Manuel Miranda], Black [Leslie Odom, Jr.], and Chinese-American [Phillipa Soo]). What’s more, the use of rap and hip hop as the lyrical theme to the musical serves purposes beyond just adding unique texture and replicating the speed of the Founding Fathers’ thought processes. When theater audiences (which, as many have pointed out, are predominantly white) hear actors of color rap, it requires them to connect the actions of the Revolution with the every-day lives of the Black and Latin@ artists who populated rap and hip hop’s political beginnings.
Not all feel that the musical itself operates on this level, however. Historian Lyra Monteiro was one of the first open critics of Hamilton as a piece of work that glorifies the Founding Fathers, ignores real people of color who participated in the Revolution, and fails to examine how slavery tied in to the lives of almost every Founding Father with wealth (as opposed to exclusively Thomas Jefferson, one of the play’s main antagonists, whose involvement in slavery is used as justification for his status as a villain rather than acknowledged as totally standard for the time period, and acceptable to his colleagues, including George Washington).
In an interview with Slate, Monteiro reiterates other valuable points, such as the way that race-aware casting doesn’t make up for the fact that this is still white history, and that the “bootstraps” narrative imposed over Hamilton‘s life plays extremely well with classic white conservative ideas about what it means to be an American. “It’s this idea that we have in this country that the American Dream is achievable if you work hard enough,” she explains, “and if you are poor and unsuccessful, it’s because you didn’t try, and therefore you deserve what you have, or rather what you don’t have. […] It’s a politically dangerous narrative, because it has the tendency to obscure the ways in which so many people are blocked from those kinds of opportunities.”
Produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda and The Root’s Questlove, the same duo that helped make the original album Grammy-winning, the HamiltonMixtape includes artists from a variety of musical backgrounds, including R&B, pop, and of course, rap and hip hop. Critics of the mixtape say that it has stripped itself of the emotional quality that made the musical great; fans call it a “rap opera gem” and a “well-done” synthesizing of the musical’s main themes and contemporary artists’ unique takes.
The truth is, as usual, somewhere in the middle. This amalgamation of artists and musical styles doesn’t communicate like a smoothly organized album musically or tonally; it pauses at random moments to include songs cut from the musical, and devotes a long chunk of middle to let the female pop and R&B powerhouses emotionally exhaust the listener without relent. But it does allow a deeper connection with the source material, in that Miranda’s muses finally get to write back. Artists like Busta Rhymes and John Legend take on the words of the characters inspired by them (Hercules Mulligan and George Washington respectively). Chance the Rapper, recent friend of his, exhibits unprecedented and emotional range in the “Dear Theodosia” reprise–which is especially poignant as he just had a daughter this year and uses family as a major theme in his own music.
Even the weirder bits, like Watsky’s open letter to John Adams, are pretty endearing. (I am, of course, excepting Jimmy Fallon’s bit where he sings King George’s letter to America. I assume he was a package deal when Miranda booked the Roots, because he adds just about nothing to the song and his joke at the beginning is cringe-worthy.) At its worst, the album feels like a really good playlist that’s also really poorly organized, but at its best, it feels like the love letter to rap Miranda always wanted to write: an elaborate web filled with hundreds of references, histories, and homages, that somehow told a complete story despite the mass of information . Only a man like him could pull off.
Because of this duality, the mixtape can–and should–be treated as a selection of exceptionally fun and witty bonus tracks to the Broadway performance rather than reviewed and examined as its own concise album. (With a 73-minute run time and a few repeated songs, it’s anything but concise.) But beyond the artistry, the mixtape tackles Hamilton‘s main themes and answers many of the Monteirian criticisms.
Firstly, the goals of the mixtape are similar to the goals of the musical: to elevate the platform of Black and Brown artists. Although Kelly Clarkson and Sia deliver stunning performances on “It’s Quiet Uptown” and “Satisfied,” they and other white artists on the album sing almost direct covers of the original songs. Meanwhile, on tracks like “My Shot” (The Roots), “Wrote My Way Out” (Nas, Dave East, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Aloe Blacc), and “Say Yes To This” (Jill Scott), artists of color write renditions that are more specifically about their own lives or that draw the original song’s motifs under a harsher light. Production techniques more closely associated with the true spirit of the mixtape–such as lifting and reinterpreting motifs–are taken to interweave Hamilton‘s themes with unique artistic interpretations.
“Washington’s By Your Side” features Wiz Khalifa commenting on his personal (and pretty ironically stated) understanding of wealth as a shield from the racism he faces as a Black artist. On “Immigrants (We Get The Job Done),” MCs K’naan, Snow Tha Product, Riz MC, and Residente each have a verse dedicated to their own experience. In a Genius annotation, Miranda comments, “Each MC culturally represents from a different place on the map. These are my favorite MCs from all over the world. They can speak to this theme [of immigrants] from their brilliant perspectives.” The song also opens with a piece of prose commenting on the political debate of border security. And even “Helpless,” which altogether is an almost word-for-word cover, Ja Rule replaces “We’ll get a little place in Harlem and we’ll figure it out” with “We’ll get a little place in Queens,” and “my father left, my mother died” with “my father died, my mama cried,” updating a love song about a financially struggling couple to reflect his own reality. (Bonus: Miranda’s original intonation during the Broadway version is based off of Ja Rule’s style during duets. It all goes so much deeper than you think.)
As opposed to simply overlaying Black and Brown styles of music and dance atop white history, as Monteiro criticized of the musical, the mixtape dissolves the divide. For fans who might have watched the musical and began romanticizing the Founding Fathers, the mixtape roots the political struggles of the past in the political struggles of the present. It advocates for a romanticization of present-day artists in rap and hip hop communities, thickening the connection between their work and the work of the Revolutionaries, rather than the other way around.
Miranda even slips in a note on slavery with “Cabinet Battle 3 (Demo)” where Hamilton openly discusses a petition to ban slavery created by Ben Franklin. The text of the song lets the audience know that George Washington owned slaves himself. The status of this as a demo suggests that a serious discussion of slavery almost made it into the musical, as opposed to the one or two lines in the final product. Of course, it’s not actually text, so there are still plenty of reasons to critique the musical for its deliberate oversight, but the Hamilton Mixtape attempts to pick up at least some of the slack, and succeeds on a few measures.
Rating: 6 out of 8 slices