The Hamilton Mixtape is a work of art that must be analyzed and appreciated as a stand alone piece. Obviously roots of the Hamilton soundtrack cannot be ignored, but it is beneficial to approach this album for what it is and nothing more: a compilation of the most popular and talented artists of the time bringing a new voice to the history of democracy.
It should not be compared in quality to the original Hamilton soundtrack, because what could ever compete with that anyways? If a comparison between each Hamilton Mixtape song is made with the original inspiration from the soundtrack, one might be disappointed. Anything that is derived from a pre-existing masterpiece will obviously struggle to answer up to the high standard we subconsciously assign to it. This is especially true with Hamilton.
For example, “Wait for It” is a piece similar enough in composition to the original that is comparable to Usher’s powerful version in the original. The original evokes such a strong response, because of the little details like the minor strings in the background that make it so sonically full, the echoing of the ensemble with the lines “Death doesn’t discriminate / between the sinners and the saints / It takes and it takes and it takes / And we keep living anyway / We rise and we fall.” These lines make the struggle of living in the face of death seem more universal. The wonderful surge of sound and emotion that comes with the third refrain that listeners may anxiously wait for throughout the entire musical is still compelling. This rendition, however, may disappoint some as many of these beloved details were omitted.
Despite this, Usher brought the incredible accessibility that could bring this song to forefront of exposure, both in style and by the exposure that his name brings. The original is already a pretty accessible song and one could easily see it being popular in the mainstream scene of music. He brings the emotive tone in a different way, with the long flowing notes that enhance the chorus, echoing the quick declarative lines with a beautiful meditation on the syllables that demonstrate the prowess of Usher as a singer. “Wait for It”, along with several others like the “Satisfied” cover by Sia and the soulful reiteration by John Legend of “History Has Its Eyes of You,” create exceptional, enjoyable reinterpretations of the original musical strokes of genius. The Hamilton Mixtape goes one step further to make revolutionary history accessible to the general public through these covers.
The genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is that it takes a distant and unrelatable historical figure, Alexander Hamilton, and uses the theatrical medium to give it depth and approachability. Hamilton gives the history a heartbeat, as cliché as that is, and it lets people like me, who are relatively conscious of history but by no means enthusiasts, connect with a compelling story that would have been left of in the textbooks of high school American History if not for Hamilton. It makes the figures in the origins of democracy into characters that speak to the human experience itself. The play develops universal themes of love, love lost, rebellion, the power of the people, the strength of humanity, and countless others. It gives people a reason to explore the historical struggle and learn what, we—as a country—came from, and how that can help us figure out where we are going.
The song that exemplifies this power is “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” that pulls from a line from the original song “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” which references the fact that Hamilton and Lafayette are both immigrants fighting for the country that took them in. “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” by K’NAAN, Snow Tha Product, Riz MC, and Residente, takes this influential line and explores the history of America as an immigrant nation in light of the modern-day dialogue surrounding immigration. Given the anti-immigration climate among our recent political discourse, people forget that this country was built from the ground up by immigrants, and protected by them to this very day.
It opens with a sound sample of what could be any television news broadcast of late, with the ominously delivered words of “You know, and it gets into this whole issue of border security, you know, who’s gonna say that the borders are secure? We’ve got the House and the Senate debating this issue, and it’s… it’s really astonishing that in a country founded by immigrants, “immigrant” has somehow become a bad word. So the debate rages on and we continue….’’ This opening sets the scene for the battle of immigrant survival, as a replacement for the battle of Yorktown, in our country today.
As a quote for Lin-Manuel Miranda himself, “This election cycle has brought xenophobia and vilification of immigrants back to the forefront of US politics. This is a musical counterweight.”
The intention of this song is accomplished through incredibly witty yet palatable lyrics like, “And we all came America trying to get a lap dance from Lady Freedom. But now Lady Liberty is acting like Hilary Banks with a pre-nup” and “Racists feed the belly of the beast with their pitchforks, rich chores done by the people that get ignored.”
The powerful repetition the lyric “Look how far I’ve come,” occurs throughout the piece. Another strength is the interludes of Spanish, which when considering the official translations offer the most poignant parts, “By land or by water / False identity / We jump over walls or float on rafts / We fight like Sandino in Nicaragua / We are like plants that grow without water / Without an American passport / We packed our entire house in one suitcase / With a pick, a shovel / And a rake / We built you a castle.” The song speaks for itself, honestly portraying the response of many people in this country following the election of Donald Trump, who many feel has been xenophobic and isolationist in his policies.
Two other examples of incredibly poignant modern commentary come from the version of “My Shot (Rise Up Remix)” by The Roots, Busta Rhymes, Nate Reuss and Joel Ortiz, and Wiz Khalifa’s rendition of “Washingtons By Your Side.” Offering the story of the poor and marginalized in America, “My Shot (Rise Up Remix)” uses powerful wordplay on the word shot at the beginning saying “Ayo mugshot, gun shot, dope shot, jump shot” to lay out various futures young children are offered. It continues with “When even role models tell us we’re born to be felons, we’re never getting into harvard or carnegie mellon,” which further exemplifies the limited opportunities those who are born into financially immobile situations.”
The tone of the song drastically changes halfway through though, speaking to the overarching theme of Hamilton that perseverance against the odds is the only option with lines like “Be leaders, believers in yourself and mean it. I mean you only get one shot, take it or leave it” and “Every city, every hood, we need to rise up. All my soldiers, what’s good? We need to rise up. We ain’t got no other choice, we need to rise up. Rise up!” It’s an unapologetic, honest call for all Americans to live like Hamilton and reminds Americans that regardless of where they start, they have the shot to end up somewhere exceptional.
The album has countless other things one could speak towards, but the hasty conclusion that nothing could compare to the original sountrack, is false. The Hamilton Mixtape stands alone and shines—it is one of the most poignant sonic experiences for the times we live in and it is revolutionary.
Featured Image By Atlantic Records