Mike Pence is right about one thing: The Hamilton experience is “what freedom sounds like.” The instant-classic musical is a miracle of living history and artistic ingenuity, reaffirming our sense of America’s renegade ambition and inclusive against-the-odds promise. As a musical triumph, it is just as amazing. Creator-composer-star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs tap hip-hop’s nearly lost traditions of sing-song storytelling and giddy battle-rap brio. More astonishingly, Hamilton is full of show tunes that feel as vital as anything in contemporary pop, something Broadway hasn’t done since back when it actually was contemporary pop.
So it’s no big shock that the long-awaited Hamilton Mixtape is so well done. Miranda executive-produced the project along with Black Thought and Questlove of the Roots, enlisting a cast of pop heavy hitters (Sia, Kelly Clarkson), R&B titans (John Legend, Alicia Keys) and hip-hop worthies (Nas, Chance the Rapper, Common) to offer illuminating cover versions and re-imaginings of the original cast recordings. Miranda himself goes verse for verse with rap god Nas on “Wrote My Way Out,” an ode to words-as-weapons built off a reference to the show’s “Hurricane,” which recounts Alexander Hamilton’s rise from storm-born Caribbean orphan to Founding Father with the sharpest pen. The album is full of cute juxtapositions: There are two versions of the plaintive song “Dear Theadosia,” one a parlor-piano jaunt by Regina Spektor and Ben Folds, the other ragged vocoder-soul from Chance and Francis and the Lights. Both are gorgeous.
The inclusion of two of Miranda’s early demo recordings for the show will be a boon to Hamilton superfans. But you don’t need to know Aaron Burr’s backstory to enjoy Usher’s ascending glide through “Wait for It,” or be able to tell a Schuyler sister from a Pointer Sister to get the drama behind Sia, Miguel and Queen Latifah’s take on the lover’s prayer “Satisfied.” And if your knowledge of American history extends to the radio playlists of 2002, Ashanti and Ja Rule’s “Helpless” will be an airy joy.
When it first blew up, Hamilton immediately resonated as the peak of patriotic culture in the Obama era; POTUS’ vision was so present he should’ve been listed as a co-producer. Now, after all this knucklehead Trump Twitter bullshit, it comes with a sense of embattled resilience. “Every city, every hood, we need to rise up/All my soldiers, what’s good? We need to rise up,” Busta Rhymes tells us during the Roots’ amped version of “My Shot,” the show’s signature anthem. In other words: Let freedom ring.