The Hamilton Mixtape Review

Originally published on Trevor Trove on December 14, 2016

TL; DR(eview) – The Hamilton Mixtape makes for a great alternative listen if you enjoy the original but have listened to it hundreds of times like me and occasionally need a change of pace. It’s so inherently tied to the source material that I imagine it would be weird for a non-fan to approach this as their first exposure. But the performances and, especially, the songs that create their own story inspired by a line, phrase, or song from the show really standout as great tracks unto themselves.

Some Background

If you’ve followed me closely (or even broadly) on Twitter in recent months you’ve likely seen a tweet of two (or dozens) about my love of the musical Hamilton. Even though I am not nearly as attuned to the theatre world as I once was, there was no escaping Hamilton among my old circles of friends. I had really enjoyed Lin-Manuel Miranda’s previous Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights because it felt like a fresh new voice on the theatre scene in the same way that Jeff Marx, Robert Lopez, and Jeff Whitty had delivered with Avenue Q or Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and (again) Robert Lopez would later deliver with The Book of Mormon. All of these shows wear their utter reverence for live theatre and Broadway on their sleeve, honoring the traditions of the artform while also trying to modernize it for a 21st century audience.

Hamilton took that notion and kicked the door down.

Finding inspiration in the unlikeliest of places, Miranda was inspired on vacation by an autobiography of America’s first Treasury Secretary and face on the ten-dollar bill that nobody can remember: Alexander Hamilton. Initially conceived as a hip-hop concept album, Hamilton eventually grew into a full-fledged stage show that has taken the theatrical world by storm, quickly becoming one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time and one of the most sought after tickets in all of entertainment. More than 100,000 people like this week’s Trove Talk guest Ben Bellevue waited in a virtual queue to get a ticket to the upcoming San Francisco engagement of the show when tickets went on sale earlier this week.

In a world where the word “phenomenon” is all too often used hyperbolically, Hamilton: An American Musical is the bona fide thing. Our current President invited the cast to perform at the White House. Our (shrug) next President took to Twitter to launch a pointless attack at the company after they respectfully addressed the Vice President-elect following his attendance of the show. Lin-Manuel Miranda has become a known celebrity outside of the nerdy theatre scene, writing the lyrics for Disney’s latest film Moana and the upcoming sequel to Mary Poppins. He even hosted the New York institution Saturday Night Live, something I can’t remember a “musical theatre celebrity” having ever done before.

But enough gushing about the show which I will sometime sell my first-born child to see live. I’m writing today to discuss the recently released Hamilton Mixtape. Already a commercial success debuting at the top of the Billboard 200 chart this week, The Hamilton Mixtape is just that: a mixtape of songs related to the Hamilton musical. Its 23 songs can be pretty cleanly divided into three categories: songs cut from the original musical, remixes of songs from the musical performed by well-known artists, and songs inspired by the musical. And for the most part they all work really well with only a couple of them leading me to grab my phone and skip to the next song.

Cut Songs

As someone who has voraciously consumed Hamilton-adjacent content like the making of/liner notes book Hamilton: The Revolution, the PBS documentary, and a whole lot of YouTube videos featuring the Ham4Ham performances (mini-performances for audiences trying to see the show in the daily lottery) or recordings of songs that were cut in the making of the show, I was really pleased to see some of those numbers given a second life here.

The album features five songs that were written for the musical and eventually cut for time, pacing, or just a change in the focus of the story. A couple of these tunes are simply Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original demos and feature him portraying every character in the song. As is often the case when these kinds of cuts happen, elements from some of these song wind up worked into other songs in the show. Such is the case for the demo of Valley Forge, some of which eventually found it’s way into Stay Alive in the proper show. The other out and out demo featured is Cabinet Battle #3. Hamilton features two rap battles between the characters Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson (with President George Washington presiding as the emcee). Cabinet Battle #1 addresses America’s economic debate, Cabinet Battle #2 addresses America’s early approach of military intervention in foreign affairs, and the cut Cabinet Battle #3 addresses America’s “original sin:” slavery. The song was cut mostly because it didn’t fit in the flow of Hamilton’s story in the second act and since it winds up being a stalemate (as the founding fathers obviously didn’t really address the matter), cutting the song was the right call but it’s an interesting enough inclusion here.

The other three songs are given more of a polished treatment. An original alternative prologue to the show (No John Trumbull) is performed by the Roots. It sets the tone for the show highlighting that one of the most famous portraits of the founding fathers masks the real infighting that occurred. It’s a brief song that certainly would feel unnecessary in the proper show but sets the tone here in lieu of the musical’s actual opening number: Alexander Hamilton.

An Open Letter features a guest performing by Watsky. It’s a cut verse from Act Two’s The Adams Administration. A fast-paced rap portraying Hamilton’s disdain for America’s second President John Adams after Adams fired him from his role as Treasury Secretary, the lyrical flow of the number is beautiful featuring interplay like the rapid fire use of “new since,” “nuisance,” and “no sense.” Cut because Adams doesn’t actually make an appearance in the show so it was unnecessary to devote a verse to attacking him, the only bit that survives into The Adams Administration is the final line “Sit down, John, you fat motherfucker!” which admittedly gets the point across pretty succinctly.

My personal favorite of the cut songs even before hearing it here – and one of the songs I find myself seeking out the most on the album – is Congratulations. Originally falling after Hamilton confesses his extra-marital affair in The Reynolds Pamphlet in a misguided effort to save his legacy, Congratulations features his sister-in-law and Angelica chided Hamilton on constantly being his own worst enemy. It is also the most explicit moment of Angelica confronting Alexander about their own flirtations and the life they might have known had she not given up her own happiness out of love for her sister Eliza. Dessa does a great job channeling Renée Elise Goldsberry’s interpretation of the whip-smart Angelica as she struggles with her frustration for a man she loves after he has broken her sister’s heart. She expertly handles the jump between the hip hop attacks and the longing ballad. In the show, Angelica appears to arrive in support of Alexander before pulling the rug out and announcing she’s there for her sister. This number delivers the same effect but is much more aggressive again Hamilton himself.

All in all, from a narrative standpoint I think cutting all of these numbers was the smart move. But it’s still great to hear them performed, knowing where and how they fit into the story. But these are probably the least accessible songs for a non-Hamilton fan as they call for an extra level of knowledge of the show itself to appreciate them.

The Remixes

More than half of the album is made up of new takes on some of the original soundtrack’s best numbers (twelve tracks in total, including two short interludes that are more brief DJ remixes than new performances). These remixes are the songs most likely to reach a broader audience outside of the die hard Hamilton fan.

People don’t necessarily need to know about the life and times of Alexander Hamilton that lead up to his son’s early death to appreciate Kelly Clarkson’s heartbreaking rendition of It’s Quiet Uptown. By tweaking the lyrics ever so slightly to remove specific character names, the song exists as a standalone ballad about the tragedy of losing a child and finding solace in each other when confronted with the “unimaginable.” It’s a beautiful song in the context of the show and very little of that is lost in this translation.

Your mileage may vary depending on your interest in a given artist or – if you are already familiar with the music – your affinity for a given song. For example, Wait For It is one of my absolute favorite songs from the original soundtrack and while I think Usher does a fine enough job in his cover, he changes up the syncopation just enough to leave the whole song feeling “off” to my ears.

In Hamilton: The Revolution, Miranda explains that the song Helpless is directly inspired by the genre of R&B singers pairing up with rappers with Miranda’s performance even invoking a Ja Rule-inspired vocal inflection. In that context, hearing Ja Rule and Ashanti reunite for the song here has an extra layer of meaning given that their previous collaborations served as a direct influence on the number.

Alicia Keys, John Legend, Sia, and even Jimmy Fallon lend their performances to other covers on the album. The talent is undeniable but as I said, if you are a die hard fan of the original, you might be so connected to that interpretation that the ones presented here could be very hit or miss.

I’m unclear on the rationale for the decision, but one last item of note here is that the number Dear Theodosia – a duet between Burr and Hamilton as they look toward the future with the realization that their children will “come of age with our young nation” – is represented twice on the album. One iteration features Regina Spektor and Ben Folds, while the Reprise at the end of the album pairs up Chance the Rapper and Francis and The Lights. It’s a beautiful song and both renditions are lovely but I was left wondering why it was featured twice. Miranda has suggested via Twitter that a Hamilton Mixtape Volume 2 is likely (with plenty other songs not represented here) so I’m left wondering why one of these versions wasn’t just held back for a later album.

Hamilton as Inspiration

Many of my favorite songs on the album wind up coming from this third category: the songs inspired by the show. Some of them, like My Shot or Who Tells Your Story sample chorus phrases from the show and build new verses around them. Others take a line from the show and tell an entirely new story inspired by that line.

Immigrants (We Get the Job Done) is one such number. Taking it’s title from one of the shows biggest laugh lines in the song Yorktown – where the immigrants Hamilton and LaFayette relish being brothers in arms and being called upon to serve in Washington’s army, this number turns into an incredibly relevant look at the American immigrant story today. As someone who admittedly doesn’t seek out much in the way of music, I came into this song having never heard K’naan, Snow Tha Product, Riz MC, or Residente but they all blew me away. And the underlying beat on the track is easily my favorite of the album. I can’t listen to it and NOT cheesily do my white guy head and shoulder bob to the rhythm.

Meanwhile, my favorite overall track comes in the form of Wrote My Way Out. Taken from that lyric in Hurricane, the sentiment of writing your way out of a bad situation has resonated with me from my first listens (probably understandable since this review is already at 2000 words and counting). This song showcases Nas, Dave East, Aloe Blacc all exploring that idea. It also features the only new non-demo appearance from Lin-Manuel Miranda himself on the album. His verse explores his own personal experience of writing his way out with direct references to his pseudo-autobiographical show In the Heights.

I wouldn’t ever dare compare my own ridiculously privileged experience to the ones described in this number. I’m not writing my way out of a bad situation. If anything, I’m just trying to write my way up to a better situation. But that said, the chorus of this number hits me really hard and sits with me nonetheless:

When the world turned its back on me
I was up against the wall
I had no foundation
No friends and no family to catch my fall
Running on empty, with nothing left in me but doubt
I picked up a pen
And I wrote my way out.

As I said, there’s no direct correlation here as I would consider myself ridiculously blessed and supported by friends and family as I write this kind of stuff, but damn if it doesn’t hit me with the same levels of inspiration that Hamilton lyrics like “writing like you need it to survive.”

Final Thoughts

The Hamilton Mixtape is a must-listen for fans of the original soundtrack/show. And if you’re not, there are definitely a healthy number of entry points on this album but I can’t imagine any scenario where someone would enjoy the Mixtape and not the musical that inspired it.

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