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Courtesy of Atlantic Records

December 14, 2016

TEST SPIN: Various Artists — The Hamilton Mixtpe

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Hamilton… a mere mention of its name opens a bevy of conversation. But really, what more can be said about ten-dollar founding father, that has not already been said? Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Broadway behemoth already has a Grammy Award-Winning soundtrack that reached #1 on the Rap Albums chart (apparently the first cast album to ever do so), and its shows have been consistently sold out, with some re-sale tickets going upwards of $2,000. Yet Miranda’s involvement with recent films like Star Wars The Force Awakens and Moana, seemed to signal his departure from the musical. But surprise! surprise! On December 2, the versatile maestro unleashed The Hamilton Mixtape, a 23-track collection of covers and remixes of the original cast recording, as well as unreleased demos and some new material, all performed by guest artists such as Chance the Rapper, Nas, Sia, Alicia Keys, Usher, John Legend, Busta Rhymes, Wiz Khalifa, Regina Spektor, Jimmy Fallon the Roots and of course, Miranda himself. All of these artists provide their unique reinterpretation of the original lyrics of the album, and as a result, they expound upon the musical’s themes of perseverance, integrity and diversity, while also paying homage to the signature charm and aura of the original soundtrack. The result is an eclectic and electrifying project that diehard and new fans of the musical can enjoy.

The mixtape’s strength lies in its ability to tell a different version of the events that transpired in the musical. “Say Yes to This” provides an alternative account of Hamilton’s infidelity from the perspective of Mariah Reynolds. The original version saw Hamilton’s inner turmoil against rejecting Reynolds advances, but Jill Scott’s performance subverts the viewpoint; she sings with braggadocio and allure as she seductively tempts Alexander to be with her. It is unsettling and at the same time dangerously bewitching. While the original musical did not give much characterization to Reynolds, this rendition of the song deepens her character. Likewise, with “Washingtons By Your Side,” Wiz Khalifa transforms the beat of the original song into a double-time contemporary rap track, complete with auto-tune elements and drums. Rather than speaking from Aaron Burr’s perspective, who was jealous of how George Washington always seemed to admire Hamilton, Khalifa speaks of his own life, and muses that although it would have been nice to be born with more wealth (i.e. the “Washingtons” in this track referring to dollar bills) he was still able to achieve success without compromise. It’s a small little punny twist, but Khalifa faithfully commits to the concept, which gives the track instant replay value. Likewise, my favorite song on the original cast album was “Satisfied,” and the combined star power of Sia, Miguel and Queen Latifah embellish the themes of longing and desire beautifully. Sia’s croons the opening lines, and immediately sets a different ambience, opting for vehemently circular lyrical phrases, and a balanced combination of mid-range to high range octaves. She lingers on the notes, letting them trail off slowly rather than cutting them out quickly as if to further elaborate the resonating feelings that she has for her lover. Queen Latifah injects a sense of belligerence as she showcases frustration at her lover for not making advances. Miguel’s silky vocals likewise interplay well when he and Sia dialogue, and as a cohesive whole the trio works well to elevate the track from its historical context.

For those who want more of Miranda himself, a third Cabinet Battle song also makes its way on the mixtape, with Miranda debating over the ethics of slavery over a J. Cole “Tale of Two Cities” sounding beat. Compared to previous installments, the track is not as bombastic and much more stripped back and eerie, which further communicates the gravitas of its subject matter. Miranda likewise proves his further lyrical prowess on “Wrote My Way Out,” providing a visceral verse stating “I know Abuela’s never really gonna win the lottery / So it’s up to me to draw blood with this pen, hit an artery.” Nas also makes an appearance, and he and Miranda talk about how their quick wits and adept pen game got them out of dark situations. On the original cast album “My Shot” was an instant classic, and on the mixtape, while the main chorus is kept, three brand new verses from Black Thought, Joelle Ortiz and Busta Rhymes unanimously encourage individuals to not be lazy, but to rise up from the bleak situations they find themselves in.

But by far, the standout track “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)”. K’naan, Snow Tha Product, Riz MC and Residente showcase the hardships and frustrations of being an immigrant in America, and the dual isolation of living in a country that blacklists them, while also being away from their families. They boldly make a case at how not only are immigrants necessary for the development and survival of America, but also reiterate how America was a nation of immigrants, and poignantly spell out the injustices against the indigenous peoples as well. All four artists provide blistering guest verses, with each 16 bar phrase being jammed packed with complex rhyme schemes, lyrical punches, and double-entendres. Snow Tha Product spits what is possibly one of the illest lines of 2016, stating “You claim I’m stealing jobs though / Peter Piper claimed he picked them, he just underpaid Pablo / But there ain’t a paper trail when you living in the shadows.” Likewise, Residente (of Calle 13 fame) raps a verse is completely in Spanish, all the while retaining the same confidence and force as his peers. It’s one of the best moments of the song, and his lyrical dexterity is best shown through the line: “Nosotros Les Sembramos el árbol y ellos se comen la fruta,” critiquing once again the hypocrisy of American hostility towards immigrants. From the medium tempo to the incorporation of sound bites from this year’s election, the track is outstanding, and reminds a divided nation that we should not disparage immigrants who work hard and who have, in reality done so much for the nation.

The Hamilton Mixtape provides more of what fans of the musical have come to expect, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Unlike the original soundtrack, the mixtape doesn’t tell a cohesive story, but it succeeds in its incorporation of contemporary artists to communicate the relevancy of its poignant themes. The project’s impressive guest list and assemblage of talent harkens back to the musical’s celebration of diversity, and Miranda proves once again that the story of Alexander Hamilton doesn’t just belong in the history books; there’s a lot more to be learned from this hero and a scholar.

Zachary Lee is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at zjl4@cornellsun.com.

  • George ’94

    You didn’t mention the best track, It’s Quiet Uptown, by Kelly Clarkson