Guest review by Joshua Young
For most pop music fans, the word “mixtape” conjures up memories of meticulously timed and ordered playlists of favorite songs designed with tender, loving care to fill two 30-minute sides of a cassette tape (or for later generations, a 74-minute CD). In hip-hop, the mixtape is as old as the form itself, back when homemade recordings were distributed to fans by new MCs and DJs hoping to get noticed.
“The Hamilton Mixtape” seems to borrow from both modern definitions of the mixtape, in that it is an eclectic blend of covers, remixes, demos and new material based on the 2016 Broadway hit “Hamilton: An American Musical.” At first glance, albums like this might be viewed as a star-studded vanity project designed to cash in on the musical’s continued wave of success. However, Lin-Manuel Miranda (book writer and original star of “Hamilton”) and company seem to instead be striving towards what made early hip-hop so significantly bold and artistic – that is, taking pieces (or perhaps, samples) of an original creation and handing it off to other producers and artists in the hope of uncovering new beats, rhymes and sounds that move listeners in new ways.
The diversity of styles and artists present on “The Hamilton Mixtape” is perhaps a microcosm of the original musical, itself a marrying of hip-hop and musical theater, with a dash of R&B and jazz thrown in for good measure. Old school hip-hop heads should be heartened to hear rappers like Busta Rhymes (“My Shot”) and Queen Latifah (“Satisfied”) return to the mic, while the hipster set should be pleased to hear a duet featuring Regina Spektor and Ben Folds (“Dear Theodosia”). Several of the tracks are produced and performed by Questlove (one of the original producers of “Hamilton”) and the Roots, including a cover of the King George III tome “You’ll Be Back,” with Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon. Fans wishing to take a deeper dive into the original musical might be interested to hear some of the demos that did not make the final cut, including “Valley Forge” and a third “Cabinet Battle” involving a debate about slavery. Other artists, including Usher, Alicia Keys, Kelly Clarkson, John Legend, Wiz Khalifa, Jill Scott, Ashanti and Chance the Rapper offer remixes and covers from the original cast recording.
And while the covers and guest artists already make this an impressive release, it is the original songs inspired by lines and samples from the original musical that contains the album’s most artistically significant material. “Wrote My Way Out” samples lines and beats from the song “Hurricane” (including said title as the main hook) and uses it as a jumping off point for MCs Nas, Dave East and Lin-Manuel Miranda himself to tell their stories about how the craft of writing rap songs and poetry became a source of empowerment, pulling them out of places of disenfranchisement and marginalization. I picked up the pen like Hamilton/Street analyst, now I write words that try to channel ’em/No political power, just lyrical power, writes Nas. “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)”, takes a throwaway joke from the song “Yorktown” and turns it into a beautiful reflection on the struggles of first-generation immigrants from K’naan, Snow Tha Product, Riz MC and Residente (who raps in Spanish).
One might say that many of the Hebrew writings (Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, etc.) are the original mixtapes, where ancient sources were “sampled”or “re-mixed” and combined with new material to create expressions of divinely inspired poetry designed to engage awe and wonder within the hearts of the gathered community. Leaders looking to engage with their congregations about the impact of “Hamilton: an American Musical” should find plenty to talk about on “The Hamilton Mixtape.” Indeed, this album continues the cultural conversation started in the original musical regarding music, race, immigration, politics and changing perspectives on American history – conversations that the church desperately needs to be engaging.
And perhaps amid those conversations and amid listening together as a community, moments of divine connection may be found layered beneath the surface in the rhymes, beats and remixes of this truly amazing cultural phenomenon.
JOSHUA YOUNG serves as the director worship and music ministries at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church and is a candidate for ordination in the PC(USA). He is married to Rachel, who regularly contributes to the Outlook Outpost blog and also serves on staff at Clear Lake Church, and is a father to 1-year-old Ezekiel.