When the original cast recording for Hamilton was released in September 2015, few people had seen the show. (It had only opened on Broadway a couple of months earlier.) But it didn’t really matter: The album was almost instantly a hit, winning a Grammy before the show had even swept the Tonys. As Wesley Morris put it in the New York Times Magazine in December 2015, “To know someone who has this album is to know someone who needs a restraining order.”
You could think of Hamilton as Schoolhouse Rock but with the Founding Fathers. But that sells its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s intricate lyrics and richly evocative music — with influences in rap, hip-hop, R&B, dancehall rhythms, and traditional Broadway tunes — pitifully short.
Hamilton isn’t “educational,” insofar as its aim isn’t to get us all to pass tests on the American Revolution. It’s art: a Broadway musical, a treasure trove of earworms, a defining cultural artifact of the early 21st century. And yet Hamilton is an education all the same.
Listening to Hamilton for the first time is remarkably like hearing a great cover album: It’s a delight all on its own, but it also reminds you of the greatness (and flaws) of the original. (“The original,” in this case, includes not just the story of Alexander Hamilton but also the ideas, currents, and friendships running through America’s founding, which were messy and contradictory.)
Now, after a record-breaking year for the show, The Hamilton Mixtape is doing for Hamilton what Hamilton did for American history. In Hamilton, the life of Alexander Hamilton becomes a cipher for American ideals; in the Mixtape, the musical’s songs become a celebration and a plea for 21st-century America to pay renewed attention to how the past informs the present.
Somehow, the Mixtape feels remarkably like it’s the album Hamilton was covering all along.
Hamilton drew 21st-century beats into the past; the Mixtape pulls those tunes back into the present
Lin-Manuel Miranda originally conceived of Hamilton as a hip-hop concept album called The Hamilton Mixtape. (You can watch some excerpts of an early performance at the White House.) When it instead became a full-length musical and a smash hit, Miranda repurposed the name for a new album, which dropped on December 2, after some early releases and a live performance of a few tracks. Now The Hamilton Mixtape exists as a treasure trove of covers and reimagined variations on Hamilton the musical.
The talent lineup on the Mixtape ranges from Kelly Clarkson to Busta Rhymes, Nas to Sia, Common to Regina Spektor, Dessa to K’naan — encompassing pop, hip-hop, R&B, rap, and plain old quirky covers. The range of styles on the Mixtape is even broader than in the original show.
Some of the tracks are drawn from or based on Miranda’s demos, tracks that didn’t make it into the show (like “An Open Letter” and “Congratulations”). Some, like “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” and “Wrote My Way Out,” sample from the cast recording. Others are straight-up covers, or close to it: Usher croons through “Wait for It,” and Alicia Keys sings “That Would Be Enough.”
When Miranda teased the track listing back in November, one of the most intriguing inclusions was Ashanti and Ja Rule’s collaboration on “Helpless.” According to Miranda, the number — which is sung by Eliza Schuyler, who becomes Eliza Hamilton by the end of the song, with a rapped verse from Hamilton himself — was really written for Ashanti and Ja Rule. The crooning, the lilting hook, the boasting rap verse: All are vintage territory for the pair, who had a series of Top 10 collaborations in the early 2000s that Miranda essentially transposed back to 1780.
Once you hear their version of “Helpless,” it’s the cast album version (with Phillipa Soo and Miranda) that sounds like a cover. The Ashanti/Ja Rule rendition doesn’t rely directly on the Hamilton story, and switches things up slightly because of it; Ja Rule addresses “Ashanti,” not Eliza, and suggests they’ll get a “little place in Queens” rather than Harlem. When Ashanti sings that “Shorty made her way across the room to you,” she’s transforming the musical’s direct reference to Eliza’s sister Angelica into a more general version that addresses whatever friend she brought to the club.
In isolation, this seems like a shrewd way to get the song radio play. But in the context of the whole album, a larger Mixtape aim emerges: to complete the circle started by the musical, linking history back to the present.
Thinking of contemporary artists and styles — and, most importantly, the concerns and themes that have animated rap and hip-hop since the 1990s — while he was writing Hamilton helped Miranda draw a line from the spirit of the American Revolution all the way to the 21st century. Miranda told Entertainment Weekly in 2015 that he’d modeled George Washington on Common and John Legend — both of whom recorded tracks for the Mixtape originally performed by Hamilton’s Washington, Christopher Jackson — and Hercules Mulligan on Busta Rhymes, who guests with Joell Ortiz and Nate Ruess on the Roots’ version of My Shot. Hamilton was a way to give a new voice to characters based on the legends Americans grow up knowing about — Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lafayette — as well as others we remember more dimly (if at all), like Mulligan and the Schuyler sisters.
But while the musical stylings in the show are contemporary, the costumes and settings are of the period. It’s the story of modern America, but in colonial garb. You can finish listening or leave the theater aware that the show is about us (at the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik called it “the musical of the Obama era”), but not have as clear a picture of how its themes connect to matters in the 21st century: immigration, racism, poverty, liberty.
That connection surfaces more clearly in the Mixtape, which samples, rewrites, and gets playful with Hamilton — it’s a mixtape, after all. Miranda and company have always embraced the way creativity and art travels both in hip-hop culture and in the internet age. (Miranda’s social media following is immense and devoted, and their Ham4Ham videos were as responsible as anything for keeping Hamilton fever up around the country even when nobody could get tickets.) The Mixtape concept is in keeping with this ethos: That one song is just the start of an endless stream of creative reinterpretation that can result in new art, which becomes the basis for even newer art.
In the Mixtape, the songs of Hamilton take on new meaning
Hamilton was itself a mixtape of sorts: Using the story of the founding as a basis, the show remixes with its casting (Hamilton, a white immigrant from the Caribbean, along with most of his friends, now becomes nonwhite), its musical styles, and its inclusive (but historically aware) take on what the American experiment meant then and means now. The Hamilton Mixtape is the second level of this, a take on the same themes from the early 21st century.
Hamilton was never really just a nostalgic gaze backward — it’s always been about us, today. The Mixtape works to make this more explicit. It crafts its own narrative.
One way the Mixtape does this is by lifting terrific songs from the show, sung by characters in the late 18th century, and nestling them down into the 21st century via iconic voices from our time, as in Ashanti/Ja Rule’s “Helpless” or Usher’s “Wait for It.” Nas, Common, Busta Rhymes, the Roots, Alicia Keys, Jill Scott, and most of the others have been around a while, long enough that their sounds are familiar. (Kelly Clarkson won American Idol in 2002!) In most cases, the lyrics are massaged slightly to make them work outside the context of the show.
Sometimes the songs are altogether new, or recontextualized: “Wrote My Way Out,” one of the album’s best tracks, is situated in the show as a line in “Hurricane,” as Hamilton recounts his escape from his childhood through writing and decides to write the Reynolds Pamphlet, which will ultimately prove to be his political downfall. The Mixtape version retains the best part of that, featuring Nas, Dave East, Aloe Blacc, and Miranda rapping about how writing rhymes was their ticket out of difficulty.
In “Say Yes to This” — an homage to the show’s barn-burning “Say No to This,” in which Hamilton falls into a costly affair with Maria Reynolds — Jill Scott takes Reynolds’s position, turning in a bold and confident ballad of seduction aimed at an unnamed figure of desire. It’s probably not the most accurate representation of Reynolds herself, who was seemingly put up to it by her husband in order to extort Hamilton; but Scott reinterprets the story and re-empowers Reynolds, putting her in charge of her own story, giving her control of her own narrative.
In the show, “immigrants — we get the job done” is a winking line between Hamilton and Lafayette (that always gets uproarious applause from the audience) during “Yorktown.” In the Mixtape, “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” becomes a whole song, sampling the cast recording for its hook but calling in K’naan, Residente, Riz MC, and Snow Tha Product to rap about immigration in America today, some of it in Spanish. In the show, it’s a political aside; in the new track, it’s a statement, front and center.
The “Immigrants” track ends with a spoken “Not yet,” which is a line borrowed from “Yorktown” that responds to whether black and white soldiers alike have freedom after the Revolution. In its original context — situated in 1781 — it’s a rueful recognition that the country had a long way to go to secure the same legal rights for its black citizens as its white ones. On the Mixtape, the line raises questions about whether immigrants have a solid and secure place in America in 2016.
The Hamilton Mixtape tells the story — and reminds us we’re part of it
Perhaps the most curious — and telling — feature of the Mixtape is that “Dear Theodosia,” the song that Burr and Hamilton sing to their infant children, is recorded twice. Regina Spektor and Ben Folds cover it once as a sweet lullaby near the record’s midpoint. Then Chance the Rapper and Francis and the Lights’ version of the same song closes the album.
The original “Dear Theodosia,” sung by two doting fathers looking toward the future, ends with them singing, “If we lay a strong enough foundation / We’ll pass it on to you, we’ll give the world to you / And you’ll blow us all away / Some day, some day.” In his version, Chance the Rapper (whose voice throughout is heavy with emotion, ready to crack) sings it a little differently: “We’ll make the world safe and sound for you / Some day / You will own your strong enough foundation / One day / Some day.”
That this song, tweaked as it is, repeats what came in the middle, underlines the album’s whole trajectory. The Hamilton Mixtape is about 2016, and it dropped at an extraordinarily tough time in America, at the end of an excruciating year in which many found their assumptions about their country susceptible to total upending. Suddenly it seems the “strong foundation” Burr and Hamilton sang about isn’t all that solid.
Chance the Rapper’s “Dear Theodosia” is immediately preceded by Common’s version of “Who Tells Your Story,” with a hook by Ingrid Michaelson. It’s a track that asks what kind of stuff legends are made of and retraces American history:
From boats that we came on to lights with our name on
Through hard times, we spark minds to keep the flame on
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
And say, this is the brilliance of a black American child
In his “Who Tells Your Story,” Common argues that you tell your story, as much as anyone else — that it’s a dialectic narrative, not a monologue, and that we, now, are as much a part of the telling as ever.
So the Mixtape’s plea is to not get stuck looking only backward to the past. The founders, it says, did their very best. They wrote the Constitution and put together a government and a set of ideals that were, as best they could tell, a shot at freedom. But the vitality of their experiment is nothing if it doesn’t get remixed and revisited, keeping the source fresh by building on it. The cement of that foundation isn’t dry yet. The tale isn’t fully told. And history has its eyes on us.