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Courtesy of Atlantic Records

Look around, look around: ‘Hamilton Mixtape’ blows us all away

The collection of covers and reimagined tracks is an exquisite love letter to “Hamilton” fans.

By Nancy Coleman | Dec. 17, 2016

Tags: Music Reviews

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I listened to The Hamilton Mixtape for the first time the same way I listened to Hamilton.

Start from the top. Let the first song catch your attention. Let the second song make your heart beat a little faster. Listen through the next few songs in awe. Breathe heavily. Have several out-of-body experiences. Pause. “Take a Break” and reflect. Play. Cry a few times. Have an existential crisis when you realize that you will never, ever be able to create a piece of art as transcendental as this one.

Repeat. Memorize every lyric, note, rhythm, pause where the catch of the singer’s breath matches your own. Repeat.

The Hamilton Mixtape brings the conception of Broadway sensation Hamilton full circle in an extraordinary way. If Hamilton was the show that changed how we experience modern theater, The Hamilton Mixtape is the album to upturn how we create and listen to mixtapes.

Mixtapes are all about evoking a certain emotion: They’re personal odes to significant others, best friends and the people we care about the most. The Hamilton Mixtape is an exquisite love letter to Hamilton fans, giving us the songs we love retold unlike anything we’ve heard from the original Broadway cast recordings.

The songs of Hamilton — and of all musicals, for that matter — take stories that are specific to the context of the show and turn them into music we can all relate to. The artists on The Hamilton Mixtape translate those same stories into newer, reimagined tracks inspired by the musical. The stories and emotions are the same, but the style is entirely unique for hardcore Hamilton fans who have had every lyric memorized since the cast album dropped last year.

The mixtape features a wide array of covers, cut tracks from the show and brand-new songs based on motifs in the musical performed by artists from genres across the board: John Legend, The Roots, Sia, Alicia Keys, Wiz Khalifa, Chance the Rapper; the list goes on. It’s like a Broadway fantasy football team, a dream list of stars giving new voices to already adored music.

The Hamilton Mixtape has made waves since its release Dec. 2, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart. Here’s what you need to know before you give it a listen:

Wait For It

From the beginning, Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda was planning to tell Alexander Hamilton’s story with a mixtape. After facing several hardships early in his life, Hamilton wrote about the hurricane that destroyed his hometown in the Caribbean. His writing opened the door for him to immigrate to the colonies and make a name for himself. Miranda said he “wrote his way out” of his circumstances, which he connected to how many of the hip-hop and rap artists Miranda grew up listening to rose to fame as well.

Seven years before Hamilton opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, Miranda performed an early version of the show’s opening number at the White House. He said he was working on a hip-hop concept album about a founding father who embodied hip-hop: Alexander Hamilton. The idea to switch to a theatrical production didn’t come until later.

Miranda is notorious for constantly working on his next big thing — he started conceptualizing Hamilton while on vacation from his first Tony-winning musical, In the Heights, and he began writing the music for Disney’s most recent animated film, Moana, while still performing seven shows a week in Hamilton. So it was no surprise when Miranda tweeted that he was starting work on the mixtape less than a week after the cast album dropped. Instead of a standalone project, the mixtape’s tracks would be closely intertwined with the musical.

One year later, Miranda tweeted another bombshell update in his stereotypical “Non-Stop” fashion: from London, where he is filming Mary Poppins Returns, at 4 a.m. local time.

The mixtape we’ve waited eight years for dropped Dec. 2. And with the lineup of powerhouse rappers, R&B legends, pop icons and Miranda himself adding their voices to the album, let’s just say we’re lucky to be alive right now.

Best of Wives and Best of Women

The female artists on The Hamilton Mixtape undoubtedly dominate the album. From the vocal powerhouses who could shatter a glass (ceiling or otherwise), to the strong, beautiful ballad-crooners, to the intense rappers who leave us mere mortals melted into a puddle on the floor, the mixtape has more girl power than a Spice Girls/Destiny’s Child sing-off.

There are the women who rip us to shreds, the women whose voices and lyrics are so jaw-droppingly savage that they leave you torn between bowing down or crawling under a table. Three tracks in a row near the end of the album will leave you particularly shook.

First is “Say Yes to This” by Jill Scott, a play on the musical’s “Say No To This” describing Alexander Can’t-Keep-It-In-His-Pants Hamilton’s dramatic affair. I don’t know who hurt Jill Scott, but she successfully turned her pain into an immersive song full of raw emotion. Scott’s low, R&B voice sucks you in, only to spit you out with some badass runs and high notes that would scare any man.

Next is “Congratulations,” which is hands-down the best revived cut song from Hamilton. Dessa takes Angelica Schuyler’s roast of Alexander Hamilton and brings it to life with brazen ferocity. To increase your listening pleasure, I would recommend picturing Angelica/Dessa (AngeliDessa?) relentlessly stabbing a tiny Hamilton voodoo doll. Any song that starts right off the bat with “You have invented a new kind of stupid” is undoubtedly a strong contender for the most ruthless song on an album.

The last of the holy trinity is Andra Day’s powerful rendition of “Burn.” Day’s raspy, soulful voice brings a unique take on Eliza Hamilton’s passionate ballad from Act II. In the musical, Phillipa Soo’s smoother voice conveys a wide range of emotions at once. Even though Day’s style is polar opposite from that of Broadway’s original Eliza, Day conveys the same tangible heartbreak, rage and nostalgia in a completely different way. “Burn” is definitely one of the heaviest tracks on the album.

These powerhouse female vocalists aren’t the only women to stand out on the mixtape. Alicia Keys brings a new level of drama to “That Would Be Enough,” Ashanti’s “Helpless” with Ja Rule is somehow even catchier than the original, and in Sia’s rendition of “Satisfied,” she takes one of the best songs from the original musical and puts her own smooth, pop spin on it.

Two other folksier pop artists, Regina Spektor and Ingrid Michaelson, added their own sound to the mixtape. Michaelson, a singer-songwriter with a clear voice, sang the hook on “Who Tells Your Story,” adding a breath of fresh air between rapper Common’s intense verses. Regina Spektor and Ben Folds teamed up for a cover of “Dear Theodosia,” preserving both singers’ quirkier styles with the light piano melody from the original song.

One of the most impressive female artists on the mixtape, however, is Mexican-American rapper Snow Tha Product, whose bilingual verse in “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” stands out among the rest. Her words are powerful, both in English and Spanish, and she has an undeniable talent for her craft.

History Has Its Eyes On You

Some of the songs that shine the brightest from The Hamilton Mixtape are those that use new lyrics to relate Hamilton’s themes of determination and overcoming hardship back to what Americans are experiencing today.

The second song on the album, “My Shot (Rise Up Remix),” reimagines the verses of one of Hamilton’s biggest numbers in between the same resonant hook.

The original “My Shot” is Miranda’s magnum opus within his magnum opus. It encapsulates a universal hunger to rise above adversity and puts that drive in the context of 18th-century America. The mixtape’s remix is an inverted ode to these ambitions, reframing the emotions of the original and putting them back in the context of today.

The remix is performed by some of the hip-hop legends who inspired Miranda and the original “My Shot”: Black Thought from The Roots takes the first verse, followed by Joell Ortiz and Busta Rhymes.

Miranda told the New York Times that some of Hercules Mulligan’s lines and rapping style in the show were based off of Busta Rhymes. One of the most recognizable and repeated lyrical motifs in the track, “Rise up,” is a shoutout to Busta’s “Pass the Courvoisier Part II.”

The other artists on the track should also be familiar for Hamilton fans: Miranda attributed the inspiration for some of Hamilton’s takedown of Samuel Seabury in “Farmer Refuted” to Ortiz, and The Roots have been heavily involved in producing Hamilton’s cast album from the start.

In addition to the “My Shot” remix, “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” takes one of the most applause-inducing lines from the musical and surrounds it with new verses about the current problematic treatment of immigrants in the U.S. The song has a driving beat and a catchy hook, and it won’t take long for the verses to get stuck in your head.

Another notable remix, “Who Tells Your Story,” features impactful lyrics from Common, and Miranda himself lends a verse to “Wrote My Way Out,” an inspirational track about rising above difficult circumstances.

Blow Us All Away

All 23 of the tracks on The Hamilton Mixtape are phenomenal, especially those mentioned above, but two stand out among the rest: “Dear Theodosia (Reprise)” and “History Has Its Eyes On You.”

John Legend’s rendition of “History Has Its Eyes On You” is breathtaking. It’s beautifully simplistic: A piano and a gospel choir are all Legend needs to create a slow, substantial piece. The lyrics are all the same, but the melody of the chorus has been reimagined to create a captivating hook.

The second “Dear Theodosia” on the mixtape is a magical reversal from everything we thought we knew about the original song. Chance the Rapper and Francis and the Lights took one of the lighter, more upbeat tracks from the musical and delved in so much deeper. The reprise slows it down, preserving the pure adoration of the original while adding layers and layers and layers of emotion that dig past the initial pride and hopefulness.

For theater fans, there’s not much that could top what we heard from Hamilton — but the mixtape certainly comes close.

MOVE gives The Hamilton Mixtape 5 out of 5 stars.

Edited by Katherine White | kwhite@themaneater.com

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