If Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is arguably the finest artistic work of the decade to date, then The Hamilton Mixtape, released Friday, is a victory lap for the playwright and everyone who has joined in on the festivity surrounding his show. Its very existence is a celebration, and for years to come it will serve as a unparalleled testament to the impact and influence of Miranda’s musical.
Featuring a stellar roster of hip-hop, R&B and pop stars, The Hamilton Mixtape is a wonderful mix of things. There are straight-up covers of some of the show’s songs, renditions of others that vary in style or format and some original pieces, from tidbits to full-length tracks, that fit in beautifully.
The highlights are plenty. John Legend makes “History Has Its Eyes On You” completely his own. Andra Day reminds everyone that her voice is superstar material on a passionate rendering of “Burn.” New Miranda verses on “Valley Forge,” “Wrote My Way Out” and others feel like more Hamilton, more brilliance from a rhyme-writer who can hold his own among the handful of hip-hop heavyweights with features here (Wiz Khalifa is not included in said handful; his presence is puzzling).
And finally, on the last track, we’re blessed with Chance the Rapper, a new father himself, singing a reprise of “Dear Theodosia” with Francis and the Lights. It’s a strangely intimate, beautiful finish to an album one would assume should close with a grand finish.
Having said all that, we’re not talking about perfection. In listening to some of the album’s singles, Spotify’s auto-play would often follow up a Mixtape song with its original counterpart. It was in these moments I realized the mixtape’s major flaw: This album has great songs and good songs. The problem with the good songs is their shortcomings are held under the microscope provided by their superb parallels, making the listener only want to turn off Kelly Clarkson singing “It’s Quiet Uptown” and instead listen to Miranda’s more emotional rendition.
I use “It’s Quiet Uptown” as an example because, quite unfortunately, this dynamic exists on the very best songs from the musical (think “Wait For It,” “Satisfied” and “Helpless”). The originals are just too good to not bring down the Mixtape track. This means the mixtape’s best songs are those that innovate in a major way through either original material (such as “Wrote My Way Out”) or the elevation of a minor song to something new and exciting (such as Jill Scott’s revamped “Say Yes to This”).
The mixtape feels right because the show itself is an ode to so many of the styles the artists present created. “Helpless” had always felt like an early-2000s Ja Rule duet, so guess what? Ja Rule and Ashanti cover it. Hercules Mulligan was clearly supposed to be Busta Rhymes in the musical so Rhymes shows up to kill a verse on “My Shot.” Where Hamilton gave a nod in the direction of all of these people, here they are giving a nod right back.
If 2015 will be remembered as the year we got Hamilton, then 2016 was the one in which we fully acknowledged what a gift that was. The musical just happened to arrive at a time when the world was starting to lose its head a bit. And over the last two years, it’s been piece of art many could lean on when they felt weary. When I say this album is a celebration, it’s not celebrating the wild success of Miranda’s work. It’s celebrating that the work was created to begin with.
“Aren’t we lucky?” The Hamilton Mixtape essentially says. “Lucky to have all this.”