The Hamilton Mixtape has finally come out after much anticipation! I thoroughly enjoyed the musical’s soundtrack and what performances I could see via broadcasts and award shows. So a collection of musicians covering songs from the original and creating new songs that used the originals as starting blocks really intrigued me. The Mixtape is fascinating as an adaptation, as a musical album, and in its culturally progressive themes, and I thought it was a fun overlap of the camp of Broadway and the vulnerability of hip-hop and sincere pop music.
As adapted media, The Hamilton Mixtape is an interesting exercise. There are four types of songs on the album: covers, demo tracks that never made it to the musical, realized versions of cut tracks, and new songs based on the musical’s themes. In this way, it cannot sufficiently retell the story of Hamilton, nor does it try to. But in the sense of capturing the tone of the story, a poppy story about immigrants that honestly features people of color instead of just racebending the Founding Fathers, it succeeds. There are songs about fighting through poverty, immigrant struggles, political fighting, romance and infidelity, and personal conflict. The whole project was overseen by Lin-Manuel Miranda, so of course the ideals of both soundtracks match. They both feel like part of the Hamilton “brand”, so fans should be able to come right over.
The influences from rap, hip-hop, and R&B are obvious and integral to the musical. But one of the most prominent critiques of Hamilton was that despite starring predominantly people of color, it was still a story about white people. This critique is valid. No amount of rap can change the fact that the characters were who they were in history. Another critique was that despite all its attempts at progressivism, women still took a backseat in the story; since there was “raceblind” casting, why not “genderblind” casting? The Mixtape changes much of this for the better. For people of color, the songs “My Shot”, “Wrote My Way Out”, and “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” are framed by lyric samples from Hamilton but directly discuss stories many of us face. “My Shot” discusses how people of color feel the need to capitalize on any opportunity to get out of impoverished situations despite how hopeless they are. “Wrote My Way Out” mirrors this. In “Immigrants”, rather than just state that immigrants can, in fact, get the job done, we get to hear about how the American Dream isn’t that fulfilling. The rappers also point out the vampiric nature of xenophobic distrust.
I been scoping ya dudes, ya’ll ain’t been working like I do
I’ll outwork you, it hurts you
You claim I’m stealing jobs though
Peter Piper claimed he picked them, he just underpaid Pablo
These definitely strike a stronger chord with me as a person of color than the Founding Fathers’ stories did. Although I grew up relatively privileged, my parents worked really hard to provide for us, and I still understood how necessary it was to work hard to get to a better situation. These songs reflected the “We have to work twice as hard for half the credit” speeches that many people of color get when they are young. Additionally, they feel more like rap songs you would find outside of Broadway, rather than stage pieces, which lends an air of authenticity to them. Further, there are a couple of interludes on the album that are pretty much just turntable experiments playing with tracks from the musical. These feel like throwbacks to the origins of hip-hop, which featured mixing old songs into new beats for MCs to rap over.
Gender lines are also less divided in the Mixtape in the sense that women get to do a bit more here. A female MC is present in the aforementioned “Immigrants”. The cover of “Dear Theodosia” stars a woman in Burr’s role and the cover of “It’s Quiet Uptown” is exclusively performed by a woman, rather than the back and forth from the play. There’s a reversal of “Say No to This”: “Say Yes To This”, starring Jill Scott propositioning a man for sexy times. The song is placed between the “Take a Break” interlude and “Congratulations” and “Burn”, so we’re given the impression that this is Maria Reynolds if she had more agency. Those are the main deviations I noted where women got to shine where they didn’t previously, but their presence is retained in all the spots from the musical. It’s nice to see the racial diversity in women here, too. It’s not simply Black and white as so many mainstream works seem to be—Mexican and Filipino women get to make their marks too.
Lastly, The Hamilton Mixtape works as a great hip-hop and pop album in general. The singers in almost every case take interesting departures from the original renditions when they are doing covers. When rapping takes the stage, the quality is high enough to keep the project out of the bland territories a lot of mainstream rap music is maligned for. Although Wiz Khalifa has a song towards the end about having money: “Washington’s By Your Side” feels like comfortable territory for him, but in a way that keeps the album from sounding like “woke, conscious, elitism”. It’s kind of “swag rap” (rap about how cool the artist is) but it fits really well here: first as a funny play on words, but also a source of levity before the finale of “History Has Its Eyes On You” and “Who Tells Your Story”, both somber songs. But the whole Mixtape keeps this playful nature of silliness juxtaposed with seriousness. Watsky (a rapper known for speedy rapping and comedy) spits “An Open Letter” to President John Adams over beat-boxing, ending with the infamous “Sit down, John” line. Later, Jimmy Fallon’s performance of King George’s “You’ll Be Back” is prefixed by a skit of him explaining how he’s been coached (by a fictional person) and performing it oddly. The skit fades out into a legitimate and properly sung version. Along with the shifting tone of the mixtape, there is a shifting scale of popularity of the artists to the listener. In other words, there are some household names here next to artists who are fairly obscure. This divide will depend a lot on the listener and their tastes, but everyone pulls their weight. Mixing mainstream artists with less popular ones feels like an effort from Miranda to promote more artists of color and female artists that many people may not have heard of.
Overall, The Hamilton Mixtape is an album that does a lot in its hour-and-fifteen-minute runtime. It creates an extended experience for Hamilton fans, brings even more women and people of color to the story, and provides a tracklist that will be enjoyable to both those who have heard the musical and those who haven’t. It’s very solid and flows from song to song beautifully. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes their pop and hip-hop intertwined with the energy of Broadway around the corner.
Hear more from BrothaDom on Character Reveal, the podcast he cohosts with Lady Saika!