One of my general criticisms of the Hamilton musical was that Lin-Manuel Miranda is not a good rapper. Allowing seasoned hip-hop artists to perform remixes of his tracks provides a resounding confirmation of that. Miranda has flow reminiscent of speed rappers, in which every beat has a syllable (or more). He’s missing the speed, of course, but more importantly he’s missing the variations in tone and emphasis that can be heard from one of the style’s best-in-class, Busta Rhymes, during the bridge of My Shot, or Watsky on An Open Letter. Miranda’s tone is dweeby, and he frequently tries to fit too much into his verses. This is a problem I don’t think I’ve ever heard from Nas, or the other featured artist on Wrote My Way Out, Dave East. A rapper need not sound like them (Busta Rhyme is proof of that), but I think Miranda has a lot to learn about being an emcee. I wouldn’t have felt the need to bring it up if he’d just done us a favor and stayed off the damn mixtape.
Along those lines, there are several tracks on the Mixtape that didn’t make it into the broadway production of Hamilton — I agree with Miranda’s decision to keep them out. Several are highly political in ways that would have detracted from the narrative; I find Miranda’s political thoughts to be lacking in actionable insight, and despite his supposedly biographical research it would have been anachronistic to include them. That said, Immigrants is a well put together hip-hop track, with excellent delivery from all four rappers. Lyrically, I think it is an embarrassment that a song like this needed to be written, but it is a punishment this country deserves. Another decent demo-type track was Congratulations, which was a short but sweet hip-hop/pop hybrid. Dessa doesn’t seem to have a powerful voice, but it worked for the song (unlike some others we’ll see later).
I was very pleased to see artists like Alicia Keys, Ashanti, and Jill Scott (and Andra Day, retrospectively) tapped to perform some of the songs from Hamilton, because I felt from the beginning they were the type of singers that the songs were written for. They all did a wonderful job, and I was most impressed with Keys’ very smooth, sultry take on That Would Be Enough, and Day’s unique (jazzy?) vocal performance on Burn. I wanted to like Helpless more than I did, as it is easily one of my favorites from the original musical. My complaint goes a little something like what they say about candy — it’s better without the wrapper. It’s not that I don’t want Ja Rule to be on this song. It’s that he took one of the most garbage verses Miranda had in the entire musical and either did not take, or was not given, the initiative to rewrite it and make it his own. I can’t understand why, because tracks like My Shot seemed to be completely rewritten for each individual rapper. It was a letdown for Helpless, which was otherwise quite well done. Jill Scott’s take on Say Yes To This was pretty cool. She took one of the weaker songs from the musical and turned it into a track that actually holds its own, with her strong vocals and a more cohesive song structure than the original (which was more of a plot point that happened to have music in the background).
Two songs successfully went in a different direction from the musical: History Has Its Eyes On You with John Legend, and Dear Theodosia with Chance the Rapper and Francis and the Lights. Legend’s cover is really something special. It’s slower, more intimate, and I genuinely believe this is the version that should have been in the musical (thankfully, George Washington had his moment later in One Last Time). Chance and Francis provide us with a true remix: an electronic reimagining of an otherwise pretty basic song. I remember saying, when talking about Daveed Diggs in my Hamilton review, that it would have been interesting if Miranda had incorporated the more modern sounds of hip-hop into his musical — he did not, but this Dear Theodosia remix is an example of what it would have sounded like. It would have been quite different indeed.
One song rather unsuccessfully went in a different direction, and that was Wiz Khalifa’s Washingtons By Your Side. I don’t mind the verses, but the chorus is just too ridiculous. It was a stretch to try it, and I don’t think it works.
The biggest disappointment from the mixtape for me was Usher on Wait For It. It really didn’t showcase his voice, and the result is that he gets blown out by the original with Leslie Odom. I also felt like the boosted bass added nothing to the song. Second biggest was Kelly Clarkson’s It’s Quiet Uptown. This song, more than any others, really lost something in translation when it went from an intimate, more or less acoustic track to an overproduced, full-blown pop song. It just seems like bad choices were made here, and neither the intent nor the music of the track were improved.
Somewhere in the middle between disappointment and success was Satisfied. I agree with the production on the song, and I think almost everything worked except the choice of Sia to fill the spot of Renee Goldsberry. Sia is another artist on the album with a fairly unique voice, and I am not convinced hers had the strength that this song really begged for.
Also in the ambivalence department are Regina Spektor and Ben Folds in their Dear Theodosia cover, and Jimmy Fallon’s You’ll Be Back. Especially in light of what Chance and Francis accomplished with the same song, Spektor and Folds add nothing to Dear Theodosia. It was an uninteresting song before and it’s uninteresting now. Likewise (and I won’t fault The Roots for this), Jimmy Fallon added nothing to You’ll be back. It was funny before and it’s funny now. It is novel that Jimmy Fallon would be on a mixtape, but I don’t give bonus points for novelty for novelty’s sake.
As for The Roots, they made several appearances throughout the album. No John Trumbull and My Shot were a strong one-two punch — stronger, in fact, than the actual beginning of the musical in my opinion. They also produced the penultimate track, Who Tells Your Story, with Common and Ingrid Michaelson. I am on the fence about that one, between whether it is merely a good remix, or if it is better than the original. What it misses is Eliza’s part, which was a really touching conclusion to the musical. Otherwise, the remix (which is almost entirely centered around Common) is more concise and personal.
Taking everything into account, I prefer the musical to the mixtape. There were a lot of opportunities for improvement, and not enough of them were taken. The rappers all did a good job (except one of them), but many of the singers dropped the ball. I hear Miranda has a “part 2” in the works, so perhaps he will redeem himself with the next one.