‘The Hamilton Mixtape’: Content and Context

Image: Atlantic Records
Image: Atlantic Records

The Hamilton Mixtape–announced back in October of 2015, the highly anticipated album dropped on December 2, 2016. Whetting the Hamilfan appetite, four songs were released prior to the album giving a taste of what fans would be getting. A mixture of new material and remixed originals, The Hamilton Mixtape provides a wealth of new insights into the hit Broadway musical.

The all new music by The Roots, Nas, and others takes themes from the musical and reinvents them for the modern day. “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” by K’NAAN, Snow Tha Product, Riz MC, and Residente provide lyrical insight into the modern day immigrant life. With pathos and intellectuality combined, the song has been a hit standout among fans of Hamilton: The Musical. The new material, in part due to its newness and in part due to its non-theatrical musical stylings, has been overshadowing the remakes.

However, the remixes are really the hidden gems in the mixtape. Despite lacking the shiny newness of some other songs, several of the remixed originals take the songs and flip them using new contexts. Between the musical changes and the artist choices, these songs create an all new story evoking the original characters but restructuring their narratives.

Gender-swapping a male character into a female character evokes women’s rights but also brings in an LGBTQIA context as well. For example, listening to Regina Spektor sing the lines in “Dear Theodosia”: “you have my eyes / you have your mother’s name” followed by “domestic life was never quite my style” changes the entire narrative. With her clear voice, Spektor’s version shifts the story away from that of a heterosexual father firmly falling within the traditional male breadwinner role. Spektor singing that she was never the domestic type shifts the traditional gender stereotype from the nurturing mother to the less socially accepted workaholic woman. With a female singer stating the baby has her eyes and the mother’s name, the parents become a same-sex couple. As such, the story shifts again. Simultaneously, the following lines, “when you came into the world you cried, and it broke my heart,” allow Spektor’s non-traditionally feminine character to become more than simply the one-dimensional workaholic woman who ignores her emotional needs to be a “strong female character.” These narrative changes subtly move the listener into the story of a woman who doesn’t fit the traditional female gender norms. Despite not changing the lyrics or changing the music, the single change from male to female evokes an entire range of other social issues.

Changing the musical stylings from Broadway musical theater infused hip-hop to straight R&B also changes the dynamic of the song. “Wait for It” totally shifts the character of Burr. Something about the original, and perhaps even Odom Jr’s interpretation of the song, always gives the song a slightly smarmy feel. The line that always tweaks for me in the original is “I’m keeping the bed warm while her husband is away / He’s on the British side of Georgia / He’s trying to keep the colonies in line / But he can keep all of Georgia / Theodosia’s she’s mine.” The emphasis on “she’s mine” and the clapping staccato beats in the original give a sense of nearly creepy ownership combined with an almost military precision that takes away the emotional quality to the song. However, Usher, who is well known in the R&B community for his luscious songs and voice, smoothes out the music turning it into a romantic ballad. One can almost imagine listening to it while sitting in a darkened room, at a table for two covered in a white tablecloth with a rose in the middle and two glasses of smooth red wine. The song shifts from being a battle march for Burr to seeing a softer side of the character that removes him from the political, aspirational machinations for which he was known. It turns him into a romantic hero simply by removing the staccato beats and hearing him sing about Theodosia from Burr’s perspective instead of a Hamilton focused perspective of Burr.

In addition, sometimes background on the artist is what provides the new insight. John Legend’s rendition of “History Has Its Eyes on You” is not limited simply to his singing and rearranging of the score. Looking at Legend’s personal history, he attended University of Pennsylvania (an Ivy-League school which he chose over Harvard, Georgetown, and Morehouse), has won 10 Grammys, 1 Golden Globe, and 1 Academy Award as well as the Hal David Starlight Award. Born the son of a seamstress and National Guardsman/factory worker, his life story parallels that of Hamilton. However, the choice to have him sing “History Has Its Eyes on You,” portraying the soulful Washington, moves his narrative from sidekick to beloved leader. Being sought after professionally as a collaborator as well as beloved by fans, Legend’s life story and fame represent the best of both Hamilton and Washington. Having him “portray” Washington instead of Hamilton on the mixtape uses context to give new insight through the choice of the singer showing what a more socially savvy Hamilton could have been.

None of these changes are massive changes. The content remains the same. However, the contextual shifts create entirely new songs in the most subtle ways possible. Context matters. Most importantly, the remixes recreate the original songs, the historical figures, and their fictionalized selves simply by applying a new set of perspectives. Moreover, what’s fascinating about these remixes is that there is a sense that by cognating these new contexts, whether consciously or subconsciously, the listener becomes complicit in the creation of meaning. Of the songs on the mixtape, the ones that are most revelatory are the ones that seem the least new. Instead of the content being new, the songs’ contexts remake the listeners’ relationship to the content.