What Hamilton Means for Hip Hop

Music Features
What Hamilton Means for Hip Hop

Gallons of ink have been spilled to describe the impact of Hamilton on the state of the Broadway musical, and most of those gallons have been well spent, for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s examination of America’s Founding Fathers through the lens of Alexander Hamilton has used hip-hop music and dance to waken musical theater from its long, Andrew Lloyd Webber-induced coma. Not only is the show an artistic triumph, it’s also a commercial blockbuster: seats are sold out months into the future, and scalpers are getting as much as a thousand dollars a ticket.

Precious little ink has been spilled, however, to recognize the impact of Hamilton on popular music. And yet the show may end up changing hip hop as much as it will change Broadway. Hamilton’s songs mark a decisive break in the linkage between hip hop and its range of subject matter in the minds of Broadway crowds. If hip hop can tell the story of the American Revolution, it can tell any story in the world.

To be fair, there has been plenty of hip hop prior to Hamilton that has strayed from the formula, but never before has such a high-profile, large collection of narratively linked songs reached such mainstream audiences. And it’s also true that not every track in the Hamilton score is a purebred hip-hop number. Ballads, rock and old-school show tunes are mixed in, but even those are given a hip-hop makeover. And those hybrid concoctions lend further proof that hip hop is far more flexible than most people would have you believe.

Alexander Hamilton was an illegitimate orphan from the British West Indies who, upon arriving in America, used his brains and mouth to become George Washington’s chief staff aide during the American Revolution, principal author of The Federalist Papers, America’s first Secretary of the Treasury and dueling victim of Aaron Burr. Miranda, himself of Puerto Rican descent, was fascinated that one of the nation’s principal architects was a Caribbean immigrant.

“I know this guy,” Miranda told the New York Times; “just the hustle and ambition it took to get him off the island—this is a guy who wrote his way out of circumstances from the get-go. That is part and parcel of the hip-hop narrative: writing your way out of your circumstances, writing the future you want to see for yourself. This is a guy who wrote at 14, ‘I wish there was a war.’ It doesn’t get more hip-hop than that.”

In a different New York Times story, Miranda admits that he turned to hip hop to solve a technical problem: How could he fit all the words he wanted to use in a stage musical that had to run under three hours? “Hamilton produced over 27 volumes of written work,” Miranda said. “I think it’s appropriate that we would need a musical style that transmits more words per minute than any other genre.”

In other words, Miranda is arguing that hip hop has an untapped potential for narrative because it can pack more information into a pop-song timeframe. By demonstrating how motor-mouth rapping can make the complicated story of Hamilton, Washington, Burr and Thomas Jefferson more understandable, the author of Hamilton has seized on Prince Paul’s neglected example to reveal new possibilities for the genre.

Miranda’s most important breakthrough, however, is proving to audiences who may be unfamiliar with the genre how hip hop can convey adult realism as effectively as adolescent fantasy. In this light, the most surprising aspect of Hamilton is not its ability to convey the title character’s debates with Thomas Jefferson over the role of a central government—which are not all that different from two MCs dissing each other. Far more surprising is the show’s ability to convey Hamilton’s debates with himself about whether or not he should sleep with the married woman who throws herself at him.

Adults wrestle with such temptations all the time, and Miranda’s song, “Say No to This,” captures that internal debate as effectively as any pop song I know. In the show Hamilton has been working long hours to establish a national bank when Maria Reynolds comes to him with a tale about her abusive, miserly husband. He offers advice and a loan, and she invites him up to her bedroom. “That’s when I began to pray,” raps Miranda in the title role. “Lord, show me how to say no to this. I don’t know how to say no to this. But, my God, she looks so helpless, and her body’s saying, ‘Hell, yes.’”

It’s a terrific theatrical moment, but it’s also a musical milestone. Here we hear all the strengths of hip hop—its compelling rhythms, its dexterous rhymes, its verbal density—applied from a new sensibility. In another song, “Satisfied,” Angelica Schuyler introduces Hamilton to her sister Eliza, only to realize too late that she should have kept him for herself. On the night of the wedding, she wrestles her regrets and temptations with a rap-speed vocal over an R&B melody. Such moments of psychological complexity surface again and again in the play, making it much deeper than the “hip-hop take on America’s Founding Fathers” gimmick it’s usually summarized as.

When I saw the show last December, I arrived expecting an interesting mashup of Broadway and hip hop. I didn’t expect to be as genuinely moved as I was by the characters and their predicaments. I got over the incongruity of Anglo-American aristocrats such as Hamilton, Washington and Jefferson being played by an under-40, multi-cultural cast surprisingly easily, and just as quickly began to care about both the political issues and personal relationships. I soon realized this was very smart writing—and it was a treat to see the author himself on stage in the lead role.

The play’s Original Broadway Cast Recording on Atlantic Records is quite atypical. Most cast albums try to replicate the belt-it-out-for-the-balcony approach of the stage show. This one, executive-produced by The Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, is produced like a contemporary hip-hop album, so both the vocals and backing tracks have an in-studio precision and clarity. Some will complain that this isn’t genuine hip-hop music, but that’s like complaining that Bob Dylan wasn’t a real rock ‘n’ roller or that Nirvana wasn’t a genuine punk band. Every leap forward is bound to leave some people behind.

Are there other artists similarly throwing off the constraints of hip hop? Of course. Hamilton first opened off-Broadway at the Public Theater on Feb. 17, 2015. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was released on March 15, 2015. Spike Lee’s movie Chi-raq was released on Nov. 3, 2015. In other words, all three projects were written in 2014 when the three authors, unaware of each other’s work-in-progress, were thinking along similar lines.

Lamar’s album deals with the urban youth culture that has always been hip-hop’s primary focus, but he does so not with the usual teenage swagger but with an adult self-doubt. That shift in perspective changes everything. Every time the rapper says something glib about that culture, he immediately questions the cliché, challenging himself to measure assumptions against reality.

Such collisions between wishes and facts are the mark of mature songwriting, and Lamar joins such predecessors as Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Anthony Hamilton in making the resulting sparks light up the music. That Lamar does this with strong hip-hop beats complicated by jazz and funk licks only reinforces the dramatic tension in the songs.

Lee’s film, perhaps the most underrated release of last year, deals with gang violence in Chicago. But Lee takes a radically different approach than any such picture before. He doesn’t merely use hip-hop tracks to spice up the soundtrack; he actually wrote the dialogue and narration in the rhyming couplets of hip hop. And just as the very best hip-hop sounds conversational, so does Lee’s script.

And Lee doesn’t glamorize such violence the way some hip-hop tracks do. In fact, he’s ferociously critical of the mythology surrounding such gun fights. There was no more heartbreaking image on movie screens last year than that of Jennifer Hudson as a working-class mother down on her knees, scrubbing her dead daughter’s blood off the asphalt of a Chicago street.

The plot is loosely based on the classic Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes. As in that story, the girlfriends of all the gang members on Chicago’s South Side get together and decide to withhold all sex till the men stop fighting. “No peace, no pussy,” they chant in a wonderfully over-the-top dance sequence. If numbers like that don’t clue you that we are now in the territory of fable, the rhyming couplets delivered by the characters and by the narrator, a spiffily dressed older street-corner philosopher played by Samuel L. Jackson, should.

Lee had the crucial insight that hip hop’s rhetorical flamboyance is best suited to fable. But he also knows that fables are enduring only if they tell us things we don’t like to talk about. Some rappers depict street violence as heroic. A lot of politicians throw up their hands as if nothing can be done about it. Lee angrily rebuts both reactions, and his sobering fable wouldn’t have had as much force as it does if he hadn’t used hip hop in a brand new way.

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