Monday, December 12, 2016

album review: 'the hamilton mixtape' by lin-manuel miranda & various artists

Let's talk about one of my biggest mistakes last year, or at least one that has weighed on me pretty heavily: I didn't talk about HamiltonOh, I considered it, a lot: I like hip-hop, I like musical theater, and I like Lin-Manuel Miranda. I might not have loved his debut In The Heights but it had a lot of charm and potential, so when he took the world by storm in 2015 with his musical chronicling the fascinating and tumultuous life of Alexander Hamilton... I didn't cover it. I don't really remember what my reasoning was for it either - the musical, while having its flaws in pacing and historical context, is indeed pretty awesome, with some of the most immediately catchy songs you'll ever hear. And hell, I even knew Daveed Diggs from clipping., I had an obvious inroad here!

And yet even with that Hamilton became the sort of Broadway crossover into popular culture that you so rarely see. Forget that it cleaned up at the Tony Awards, it was the sort of show where you'd probably have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting tickets. As such, the vast majority of us made do with the soundtrack, which wound up on a surprising number of year-end lists from professional music critics and as of now has crossed over a billion streams on Spotify, which does say a lot. Would it have landed on mine? Well, it would have had a shot, and that is saying a lot, especially given how strong 2015 was, especially for rap music.

And then we all got word about the mixtape... and if you've seen the list of huge names that have signed on for it, it's more than a little mindblowing! I would have gotten it for Usher covering 'Wait For It', but when you have Black Thought, Busta Rhymes, Joell Ortiz, and Nate Ruess doing 'My Shot', Kelly Clarkson doing 'It's Quiet Uptown', John Legend doing 'History Has Its Eyes On You', Chance The Rapper working on the reprise of 'Dear Theodosia', Regina Spektor and Ben Folds covering the regular 'Dear Theodosia', Ashanti doing 'Helpless' - which is such an obvious choice it's not even funny - Nas, Dave East, and Aloe Blacc working on 'Wrote My Way Out', Common and Ingrid Michaelson handling 'Who Tells Your Story' with The Roots - and The Roots are all over this project - and then add in a bonus track like 'Congratulations' with Dessa on it... at some point, you might as well give this project a spot on my year end list! I was primed to love this, and that meant I came in with the highest of expectations - were they paid off?

Well, let me start with this: the closest comparison I could make to The Hamilton Mixtape in 2016 probably something along the lines of Kendrick Lamar's untitled, unmastered., in that while there are plenty of moments of genius, it does not have the same cohesion and power as the best of the original article. There are brilliant moments that makes the project worthwhile right out of the gate, and believe me, we'll get to them, but there are also a fair share of awkward experiments and a few outright misfires. It's also very much for Hamilton fans only, something I do think is to this project's detriment - beyond some excellent songs, you're not really going to be able to follow the plotline like in the original Broadway soundtrack, so if you're looking to figure out this Hamilton thing just off of this, it will not have the same impact. That said, I can see this having mass appeal - it went to #1 on the Billboard 200, and there might even be crossover songs on Billboard BREAKDOWN tomorrow, which if you know anything about Broadway you know how rare that is.

So for context, this is not a straight covers album - oh, for sure there are covers, but there's also demos and leftovers that were cut before Broadway, remixes of existing songs that can very liberally stretch the overall context, and that's before we get songs where a fraction of an instrumental is blown up into an entirely different song that might have the barest connection to Hamilton. And as such, you end up gravitating more to performances rather than a narrative arc - and make no mistake, you can tell a lot of people wanted to bring their A-game here to be a part of this. Sure, Usher covering 'Wait For It' is obvious, but it's also the best he's done all year probably since 'Good Kisser', he's damn near perfect for it. You knew Miguel and Queen Latifah were going to kill their respective parts on 'Satisfied', but Sia hasn't sounded this good and poised since her indie days. Alicia Keys sounds good on 'That Would Be Enough', but she's also stuck following 'It's Quiet Uptown' covered by Kelly Clarkson, and it's the best thing she's done since 'My Life Would Suck Without You', it's a jawdroppingly beautiful performance! Andra Day might be a frustrating performer for me in 2016, but she kills 'Burn' with a lot of raw intensity that even the original didn't quite capture... but she's also following Jill Scott doing 'Say Yes To This' better than that song has any right to be and Dessa proving with 'Congratulations' why she's in my all-time Top 5. Then you have John Legend taking the interlude 'History Has Its Eyes On You' and turning into a flat-out gospel song that's absolutely stunning, and sure, Regina Spektor and Ben Folds sound good doing 'Dear Theodosia', but then you get the reprise at the end of this album with Chance The Rapper and Francis & The Lights and it's one of the best things Chance has ever done, period. Chance is an emotive MC, but the subtle complexities of his delivery on this song puts him in an entirely different weight class as a singer, it's stunning.

Of course, before we get to the more experimental pieces we need to talk about the misfires, and there are a few. Probably least notable is Ashanti's version of 'Helpless' - yeah, she sounds good and even Ja Rule of all people coming to handle the male vocals is about as ridiculous as he's always sounded and not terrible... but it's also clear why they put an interlude between her and Jill Scott, she's outclassed here. Unfortunately, she's following a cover of 'You'll Be Back' sung by Jimmy Fallon... and Jonathan Groff he is not. I get being friends with the Roots and Lin-Manuel Miranda, but this is one person they should have said no to, because Jimmy Fallon does not belong anywhere close to a commercial release. And on that topic, I get Lin-Manuel being intrigued by the experimental shift, but there's no excuse to get Wiz Khalifa of all people to reinterpret and retitle the song 'Washingtons By Your Side', which becomes another song about money. Now to be fair to Wiz, he's rapping as well as he ever has and it's not a bad song - but again, when you follow it two songs later with Common and Black Thought, not only does the recontextualization not fit, he's out of his depth here.

Of course, this takes us to the greater experimentation of this album, the majority of which comes in the production and added rap verses. In the former category... okay, as you'd expect from a mixtape it's nowhere near as lush or openly melodic as the original musical, and given that's it's obviously making a play for pop airplay, it's been stripped back significantly in terms of backing vocals and instrumentation. And in a sense that's a bit galling: why not give Usher full backing support for 'Wait For It', he might not need it but it's not going to hurt him either! In contrast, 'It's Quiet Uptown' is nearly smothered in the same reverb that choked Kelly Clarkson's last album, but it's one of those rare cases where emphasizing the greater loneliness of the song modernizes it in a way that connects far more starkly than I would have ever expected. Where that distance hurts the song comes on 'That Would Be Enough' - already a lesser cut from the musical, but it's muted by the same production that frustrated me on Alicia Keys' last record. Hell, Chance even brought autotune onto 'Dear Theodosia' and it still came across as more intimate! But where things get interesting are the new rap verses... and again, there's a lot of quality here! Black Thought and Joell Ortiz both hold their own on sharply modernized verses of 'My Shot', but again, if it wasn't for that new ATCQ album Busta Rhymes would have stolen the show entirely here, and you can tell he's paying tribute back for Lin-Manuel drawing influence for Hercules Mulligan from him. Similar case for Common's authoritative bars opposite Black Thought on 'Who Tells Your Story' - if Lin-Manuel drew influence for George Washington's bars from Common, he's trying to do his best to live up to that influence, even if I think Black Thought's verse is probably the best there. Outside of a few demos and outtakes - of which I'm a little disappointed he didn't get the rest of his castmates back to play their parts - Lin-Manuel actually shows up to hold his own against Nas and Dave East on 'Wrote My Way Out', and outside of that 'Where The Wild Things Are' hashtag, it's a solid verse.

But the song that drew more of my interest was 'Immigrants (We Get The Job Done)', which is led by K'naan, features Residente and Riz MC, both of whom get overshadowed by Snow The Product stealing the entire song with bilingual bars. Now the sample from the musical is kind of clunky and on the nose, but it reflects a niggling issues with this mixtape as a whole, namely that it doesn't quite have the shades of ambiguity and political complexity that made the musical so damn fascinating and compelling. Oh, there are snippets of it - the fact that they included 'Cabinet Battle 3' as just a demo said a lot - but it also makes me wonder if this project could have had more impact beyond just individual moments if it was trying to say something. Sure, mixtapes are often used as side projects or distractions, but Lin-Manuel has to know that there are plenty of artists who have revitalized the mixtape in the past decade to say more, and I was hoping to get more of that complex ambiguity back. Hell, the most glaring omission from the tape is that there's no interpolation or remix or cover of 'The Room Where It Happens' - for as much as Hamilton makes a case for political compromise for the greater good, to make the deals that matter and win, the fat that it's not even mentioned here... yeah, I get it in the larger political context of the past month, but it's not like Hamilton ever shied away from politics, even in the aftermath of the election! Reinterpreting that song for the modern era with a real political edge would have taken some impressive stones, but it's not like Lin-Manuel doesn't have the clout at this point to get A-listers! Now granted, Lin-Manuel has promised a second tape at some point in the near future, but you could have easily cut the chaff from this and packaged it as one.

But at the end of the day, while I do think there's a place for this mixtape, it is a narrow one, as I don't get the impression the intersection between Hamilton fans and hip-hop heads is particularly wide. Now I fit within that narrow space and I'm easily prepared to say this project is great, but that also comes with a strong sense of awareness of what this project is, namely leftovers. They carry a lot of the same flavour, but some of the subtleties have been lost and ultimately they can't quite satisfy the same way as the original. That said, the original was damn good and with enough added spice to make the best parts taste as good the second time. In other words, while I'm giving this project a very light 8/10, it's only recommended if you've heard the original Broadway performance version of Hamilton first. If you have, definitely check this out and enjoy. If not, well, check out the original first, and if you can tear yourself away from it at some point, definitely check this out a little later - you won't regret it.

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