American Hustle: A Rap Nerd Reviews the Music and Influences of ‘Hamilton’

Abe Beame bugs out on the soundtrack of hip-hop opera, "Hamilton."
By    August 12, 2015

Art by Ken Lund

Abe Beame is gearing up for another campaign

This is not a review of a play. I’m not a particularly avid theater goer, and the two or three times a year I do venture out, my tastes tend to run more Guirgis than Webber. Needles to say, a musical is the last thing I’d attempt to discuss critically. Besides, there’s no shortage of press and criticism around Hamilton in every major publication in America (It’s all fawning). Instead, I’ll rather take a critical lens to the Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music for the Hip Hopera that’s captured the imagination of New York City this year.

It’s an incredible work of art. Funny, vibrant, poignant, and effective at drawing a line between the anti-establishment ethos of hip-hop culture and the origins of the country it would spring forth from. It’s a masterpiece. Believe the hype and go see it.That said, every devout hip-hop head will walk out of Rodgers Theatre with hot brain itch. The Hamilton soundtrack drops September 25th, and when it does, and I suspect for quite some time after, critics and rap historians will note the album’s multitude of references, general and direct, in its actor’s deliveries and the score’s production choices. Don’t get caught up in that it’s a Broadway soundtrack: this is a rap album. From the opening moments, revolutionary rabble rousers beat out rhythms on pub tables with their fists in ciphers. There’s beat boxing and MC battles too. There is some singing, but it’s less Sondheim and more The Dream.

All the actors in Hamilton are credible rappers. There’s never a point in the play when breath control affects the ability of say, Daveed Diggs’ Thomas Jefferson from delivering a challenging series of bars in double time, and it shouldn’t, Diggs is a rapper in an experimental rap trio signed to Sub Pop (whom Peter Holslin interviewed about the play in February of this year). And yet the experience of going to see Hamilton is like listening to any new artist. You play the inevitable game of “X sounds like Y,” “Is the production more Primo or Large Pro?” etc. Rap is too voice specific, too personal and individualized for any musical theatre major to sink into Leslie Odom Jr.’s James Madison the way they might into Jean Valjean or Sky Masterson. Over a three hour musical delivered in a number of tones and styles, this can be fascinating and maddening, trying to place the style and direction of each number.

Miranda has said he’s emulated the voices of Busta Rhymes, Eminem, and Rakim among others. But to my ears, in delivery as well as direct reference in lyrics, there are snippets of Salt-n-Pepa, Mobb Deep, Biggie, Sadat X, Melle Mel, Chance the Rapper, and Blackaliscious among the dozens of other winks and nods I surely missed in an initial viewing. In production, the score probably owes the most to mid-aughts Aftermath/Storch era Dre in its schmaltzy super productions, its use of strings and orchestral stabs, which makes a lot of sense in a Broadway play adapting hip-hop. There’s also pieces of late Timbaland, late Jermaine Dupri and MBDTF-era Kanye (Also large, grandiose producers). For the rare moments when lyrics are sung rather than rapped, Miranda continues to lean on hip-hop and its predecessors, the ballads are neo soul and Neyo soul, owing as much to Hall & Oates, Boston, and Nina Simone as they do to Monica, Blu Cantrell, and Beyonce.

With enough listens, a new artist stops sounding like a confluence of influences and starts sounding like him or herself. With the burn this soundtrack is going to be getting this fall, I imagine there’s a time Hamilton will stop sounding like a pastiche, and become the wholly original post-modern masterwork that it is. The brilliance of the soundtrack is why the “Blurred Lines” decision is so dangerous. Who knows what the production credits will read like, but it would be a shame if a duel borrowing thematically from Biggie’s “10 Crack Commandments” robbed us of a fantastic set piece because of neck cutting royalties. Part of the fun of this play is watching and listening to Miranda sampling the rich history of this art form and connecting the life of Alexander Hamilton in the 1770s, to what came out of the South Bronx in the 1970s.

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