Review: The Hamilton Mixtape

Theatre Reviews
Review: The Hamilton Mixtape

It was the project that everyone was waiting for with baited breath—when you know how unlikely it is to get tickets to the actual show on Broadway or even now in Chicago (and next year’s National tour, and the eventual West End production), any new content from Hamilton: An American Musical’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda is met with a unique level of global anticipation, rarely seen in this era’s oversaturated media market.

It’s been covered at length in every interview with the now-certified Genius Miranda how he had conceived the idea that evolved into the juggernaut musical originally as a “mixtape” concept album with distinct songs telling different stories about the life of Alexander Hamilton, starting with the title song that he debuted at the White House to skeptical, then converted listeners. Emboldened by the mindset shift that took place in that room where it happened, he then he took the reins in connecting the dots to create the record-breaking Broadway spectacle about the founding of our nation. The timing in which it opened, just as our current political arena faced an eerily similar conflict echoing the racist, classist, and sexist issues that after two centuries are no closer to being solved (because, it seems, they were ignored at our inception), made it a perfect storm to hit the national consciousness and the world turned upside down.

So what was the next frontier? Laying to track the songs that were cut from the final stage iteration (there are murmurings that there will be a Mixtape Part II, fingers crossed!), along with mostly bonafide covers by artists that were rumored to be the thematic inspiration behind the showtunes, and just straight up homages re-imagined by superfans and newbies to the material alike. Celebrities—they’re just like us!

So, was it worth the wait? You’ll be satisfied by the renditions of songs that were cut from the musical but have since gone viral on YouTube in one-off performances by the OBC (that’s original Broadway cast), like Angelica Schuyler’s take-down of Hamilton after his affair in “Congratulations,” and Hamilton’s take-down of President John Adams after being fired from the Cabinet in “An Open Letter,” plus the “Cabinet Battle #3” that masterfully debates the practice of slavery (I cringe at writing that there even is an argument, connoting two sides as though they were equal in merit).

I think you’ll be equally impressed by the original verses that either amp up the songs from the show or the new anthems written as odes to immigrants and creative geniuses, contributed by the likes of Nas, Busta Rhymes, The Roots, Aloe Blacc and Common. As for the straight covers, I have some questions (a couple of suggestions) on how to keep from detracting from the original masterpiece. What I didn’t quite understand was why some covers addressed the characters originally performing the song while others made the subjects more general, I assume so they can pass as contemporary songs that can get radio play. One song, “Wait For It” even switches back and forth (keeping “Theodosia,” but changing “Hamilton” to “everyone”). Still, the fact that a Broadway musical could inspire straight rappers to contribute new material about their struggles within the context of “The American Experiment” blows my mind and gives me hope for our future.

1. “No John Trumbull (Intro)” by The Roots
Having gone to the museum in Fraunces Tavern in the Financial District of New York City, where General George Washington last addressed his troops (and supposedly where the song “My Shot,” in the musical takes place), I had a new appreciation for this inspired intro by The Roots referencing John Trumbull paintings, where there are similar works featured prominently throughout the exhibit by another Revolutionary War painter, John Ward Dunsmore.They are gorgeously rendered and unthinkably detailed, in a way that embalms the men who founded our nation in a light of reverence and honor. But as The Roots’ Black Thought warns, “The reality is not a pretty picture, kids.” Such a simple, clever way to prepare the listener to start questioning everything they thought they remembered from their history class.

2. “My Shot (Rise Up Remix)” by The Roots, feat. Nate Ruess, Joel Ortiz and Busta Rhymes
In Miranda’s signature “I Want” song, the character of Hercules Mulligan has a definitive Busta flavor that is elevated when the real thing comes to drop some knowledge on this track. You get chills as he growls his way into the arrangement. The new verses written serve to demonstrate how America know could do to put pen to paper to make change, the way our founding fathers, especially Hamilton, did. This idea is further explored in the next track.

3. “Wrote My Way Out” by Nas, Dave East, Lin-Manuel Miranda & Aloe Blacc
Sampling from Hamilton’s breakdown song, “Hurricane,” this track adds a new addictive hook with the rich, silky vocals by Aloe Blacc. This song seems to contain the most personal verses from Miranda, as he reflects on being bullied as a kid for expressing his feelings and creativity. Who’s laughing now? “F*cking right” he’s relentless… and like the character he played, Miranda seems to write like he’s running out of time.

4. “Wait For It” by Usher
This is one of my favorite songs from the musical, and I love Usher, but it was a lot of live up to when it was originated by Leslie Odom Jr., who won the Tony Award for the role. Usher really delivers a good vocal, especially after the climax of the song—he almost won me over into thinking he could slip into this role if he set his sights on Broadway.

5. “An Open Letter” (Interlude) by Watsky
After seeing Miranda DESTROY this song in an impromptu performance during an audience Q&A thankfully captured on video, I wish this had made the cut in the musical. They say it was axed because President Adams wasn’t featured enough to warrant this takedown, but I cannot even with the intricate rhyming and historical references.

6. “Satisfied” by Sia, Miguel and Queen Latifah
This is probably tied for my other favorite song in Hamilton, so again, the bar was set high. It was smart to have separate vocals for the sung verses vs. the wrapped ones, and Queen Latifah certainly delivers. However, this just highlights how deserving Renée Elise Goldsberry was in her Tony win for this role since she could slay both parts.

7. “Dear Theodosia” by Regina Spektor and Ben Folds
This sweet lullaby to Hamilton’s and Aaron Burr’s children is given a lovely indie treatment in this version by Spektor and Folds, exactly as you’d expect, but it can easily be forgotten throughout the rest of the mixtape. Especially when you consider Chance the Rapper’s Reprise, which I preferred.

8. “Valley Forge (Demo)” by Lin-Manuel Miranda
This demo wasn’t entirely cut from the musical, many key portions were repurposed into “Right Hand Man,” the song that goes on to introduce General Washington. It’s a cool peak into both Miranda’s creative process leaving it in demo form (though with a bit more production value) and just how much research he had to do in order to achieve that delicate balance of accuracy and entertainment value, and how much story there was left over to tell.

9. “It’s Quiet Uptown” by Kelly Clarkson
You can’t deny Clarkson’s vocal prowess, and there has been a lot of coverage of how she dealt with recording this when she had her own son on the way, saying she could hardly get through this emotionally as she imagined losing him the way Hamilton had. This, to me, isn’t one of her strongest performances, and it is also one of the songs where I didn’t think it served to have one vocalist cover all the different characters in order to be remade into more generic storyline from one perspective.

10. “That Would Be Enough” by Alicia Keys
By contrast, Keys’ transformation of Elizabeth Schuyler’s sweet plea for her husband Hamilton to simply be present and appreciate what he has in front of him does resonate far beyond the storyline. While this also wasn’t a showy vocal in comparison to her personal work, it adds a bit more soul to the show tune and is a lovely rendition.

11. “Immigrants (We Get The Job Done)” by K’naan, Snow Tha Product, Riz MC & Residente
It’s well-documented, through The Tony’s broadcast, the book Hamilton: The Revolution (nicknamed the “Hamiltome”) and the PBS Documentary Hamilton’s America, that “Immigrants, we get the job done!” sung by Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette gets the biggest audience reaction. The message resonates among any generation of immigrants, first, second, tenth… it can’t be ignored that the country was founded by immigrants. This bilingual foray into the immigrant plight is a lot to take in, and worth several listens.

12. “You’ll Be Back” by Jimmy Fallon
While everyone loves having Fallon come into their living rooms every night on The Tonight Show with The Roots, (which is probably how got this recording gig, along with his very early declaration of fandom during the off-Broadway run at The Public theater), this cover seems a bit out of place. Which, when you think about it, is also true of King George’s soliloquies. Fallon adds a bit of an anecdote and a false start to the song, paying homage to the Beatles’ recording style, from whom the King gets his melodic inspiration.

13. “Helpless” by Ashanti and Ja Rule
Theoretically, I appreciated how Ashanti and Ja Rule were tapped to cover “Helpless,” when it was a song so clearly inspired by their R&B duets, but it’s hard to ignore that the vocals don’t quite hold a candle to the talents on the Broadway stage. Still, it is a fun moment for the muses to bring this to life.

14. “Take A Break (Interlude)” by !llmind
I like the turntable treatment on Phillipa Soo and Anthony Ramos’ french counting, but considering this is ALSO one of my favorite songs from the musical (the harmonies, come ON) from the musical, I wish this was actually explored in full on the mixtape.

15. “Say Yes To This” by Jill Scott
Jill Scott came in and completely turned this song around. In a time where we need more female empowerment, I love how she flipped the script on this to wonder how her man could possibly say no to all she has to offer him. Bringing it back from Hamilton’s affair to the present-day conversation, she concludes with “It appears you are on some bullshit.” Amen.

16. “Congratulations” by Dessa
This is another song that wasn’t completely cut from the show, certain verses make it into “The Reynolds Pamphlet” in the musical. Dessa adds a nice bite to the raps, but it’s worth viewing Goldsberry’s rendition during her “Happy Trails” #Ham4Ham show before her last performance as Angelica.

17. “Burn” by Andra Day
This is my shower song… and I absolutely adore Andra Day, so there was a ton of anticipation on my end when I heard she was taking this on. Day’s own music has such power and force behind it with her crazy intricate runs, but she recorded this track with a more slinky, growly vocal that never really pushes her full range until her very last long-held note on “mine.” I was just left wanting more.

18. “Stay Alive (Interlude)” by Stro Elliot
Again, some nice turntable work on the haunting piano scales, not much else to say about this interlude.

19. “Cabinet Battle 3 (Demo)” by Lin-Manuel Miranda
I absolutely love the content of this battle, and wish it could have fit into the stage production. My one complaint about this demo is that with every part sung by Miranda, it’s confusing to know which character is making which argument. and it’s hard to follow the story. To play devil’s advocate, making each side of the argument faceless also allows you to remove any biases and just listen to the words.

20. “Washingtons By Your Side” by Wiz Khalifa
I love a good play on words, and the fact that Wiz Khalifa waxes poetic about how he can’t trust certain people in his life because they may have only stuck around once he made some money shows a truly impressive journey. When “Washington” becomes more than just the person, but rather the idea of the Capital itself or our currency, the jealousy felt by the have-nots can feel more universal. Et tu, Trump?

21. “History Has Its Eyes On You” by John Legend
This one is more of a straight cover, lyrically, but Legend puts a buttery gospel spin on the melody and it just works. It makes me feel like he’s addressing me as a citizen, and all of us as a nation, that there is greatness in us, but we still have a lot of work to do.

22. “Who Tells Your Story” by The Roots feat. Ingrid Michelson and Common
Michelson’s haunting hook is nice, though gets a little tired towards the end, but hearing both John Legend on the previous track and Common get to reference “Glory,” their Oscar-winning song for Selma, made this experience even more meta. Miranda has admitted that Common was one of his inspirations for his Washington, so it’s fitting that he provides verses here. It seems that they have a lot in common, especially with this line,

“I write hard rhymes like I’m running out of time
Truthfully, my stopwatch? is one with the divine
Centuries from now, they’ll play my freestyle.”

23. “Dear Theodosia (Reprise)” by Chance The Rapper & Francis and the Lights
Chance brings a sweet, earnest desperation to this lullaby from father to child, and the fact that he is on record thanking Miranda for writing this song to articulate his feelings as a new father will just give you all the feels as you listen.

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