Hamilton initially began as “The Hamilton Mixtape,” a collection of songs about the man whom Lin-Manuel Miranda memorably christened the “10-dollar founding father without a father” at the White House in 2009. It then blossomed into a hugely successful Broadway musical, of course. But it’s worth remembering that the cultural phenomenon—the costumes and dancing, the sidewalk show, the memes, the late-night appearances, the celebrity endorsements, the Democratic fundraiser—started out as music.
And as music is how the majority of its fans are going to experience it, even if at some point tickets aren’t selling out months in advance at $300 apiece. The entire play happens in song, captured in a two-disc recording executive-produced by The Roots that quickly became the best-selling cast album in Nielsen history. A far smaller achievement is that it’s my favorite album of the year, and I’m one of the many people whose experience of the show has been limited to Spotify listens.
One of the biggest talking points about Hamilton is about how crazy, seemingly incongruous, it is for the tale of the guy who founded America’s banking system to be told through hip-hop. The creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda has a stock reply: “It’s a hip-hop story.” That’s both because of the way that Alexander Hamilton created a verbally dense record over the course of his lifetime, and the way that he came from poor beginnings to challenge the status quo with plenty of boasting along the way.
You can find this Hamiltonian idea of hip-hop refracted through rap’s other great works this year. You hear it in the verbosity, the craft, the daringness, the desperate idealism, and the death-obsessed drive of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. You hear Hamilton’s obsession with legacy, his unwillingness to back down when challenged, his profligacy—“why do you write as if you’re running out of time?”—in Drake’s multi-mixtape 2015 output. Musically, you hear the same sort of gleeful omnivorousness that Miranda practices—the belief that all sounds can be hip-hop if presented in the right spirit—in the grinning jazz of Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment’s Surf and the psychedelic swirl of A$AP Rocky’s LifeLongA$AP. In turn, all of these albums reflect essential features of Broadway musicals. Each tells a sustained story over multiple songs—even if in some cases it’s just an overarching story about the rapper himself—and they all refer back to themselves constantly, reprising lines and themes and sounds.