The Case for Hamilton as Album of the Year

This is music that wants to do everything, and succeeds.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

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.

What you don’t hear elsewhere is quite the same style of rapping as on Hamilton. A lot of the rave reviews for the show have a line dismissing the idea that there’s something inherently embarrassing about guys in powdered wigs using Mobb Deep lines to talk about the Election of 1800 for Times Square tourists. “Schoolhouse Rock” comes up a lot, as an example of what this show isn’t. I actually wouldn’t venture that argument; on some level, Hamilton must be acknowledged as hokey. Its actors crisply enunciate each word, reflecting not how people actually talk nor the most cutting-edge rap cadences, but rather the need to be immediately understood by people at the back of the Richard Rodgers Theater. “For me, it’s like when you watch a sitcom from the ’70s and everyone’s overacting—dramatic and loud—because they were doing it in front of a live studio audience,” Talib Kweli said in an interview with Vulture in which he otherwise praised Hamilton. There’s also the fact of Miranda’s writing itself: self-consciously “smart,” multisyllabic, meant to show off the characters’ braininess.

All of this creates a sense of labor, of artifice. Listening to a rapper like Future, you feel like he’s transmitting directly from his brain. Listening to Hamilton, you hear writing. You hear work. Miranda said he spent a full year working on “My Shot,” and I believe it; it probably took a month alone to figure out the right phrase to rhyme with “revolutionary manumission abolitionists.” And work, according to a common cultural attitude, is not cool. People want their artists to appear effortless—recent buzzword: “sprezzatura”—or for them to virtuosically act on sudden bursts of inspiration. When the labor is visible, it’s often exalted only if it’s the service of some abstract muse. The sonic soup of To Pimp a Butterfly clearly took a lot of man hours to create, but they were spent in order to illustrate the jagged contours of Lamar’s own mind. It’s part of that album’s sales pitch that it doesn’t care about sales.

But Hamilton wants to do everything: entertain, inform, be the biggest thing on the planet. The fact that it succeeds, I would argue, justifies its intrinsic dorkiness. After all, the show itself is a monument to overachievement and old-fashioned ambition. The answer to the opening question—“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”—is, basically “relentless labor.” The American Dream in platonic form, no? The narrator Aaron Burr may be just as brilliant as Hamilton, but he’s reserved, cool, waiting for the right moment to make a move. Hamilton makes moves constantly and proclaims his ambitions openly, and that’s why he’s the hero—he’s breaking with decorum to achieve something great.

Hamilton’s music follows its main character’s lead, trying hard to max out on both quantity and quality. You don’t just happen into songs with hooks this gemlike, intertwining elements this complex, or arrangements that so perfectly strike the magic balance of familiarity and novelty. Nor is there any accident to the fact that the diversity of sounds here makes it so you never feel lost within the two-and-a-half hours of the production. Each and every line has been carefully sculpted so that you can hear new bits of cleverness in them each time you listen. And, perhaps most importantly, the emotional machinery just works, giving an authentic thrill at the Battle of Yorktown and a powerful feeling of sadness at the death of Philip Hamilton.

Quickly, a few highlights come to mind. There’s the dumb/brilliant simplicity of the motif “Aaron Burr, sir,” permuted again and again over the course of the play. There’s the astonishing vignette “Farmer Refuted,” where Hamilton tears Samuel Seabury’s words apart by literally speaking between them—basically, it’s Miranda proving the supremacy of rap as a form of expression. There’s the neat fact that the high points of excitement in the first act, which is about the Revolutionary War coalition, are crew raps; the pulse-quickeners in the second act, about the fractious aftermath, are diss tracks. There’s the epic wedding toast of “Satisfied,” which brackets songs within songs, speeding up and slowing down time as Angelica airs her regrets. There’s the way “Non-Stop” ends the first act by introducing a new melodic theme and then working the old themes in, while also packing its scenes with asterisk-like moments where Hamilton shows his delightful lack of chill (“okaaaay… one more thing,” “treasury or state?” “I was chosen for the Constitutional Convention!”).

Hamilton can achieve all of this because it’s not purely any one thing—it can use hip-hop’s rules and break them, use musical theater’s rules and break them, and thereby show how much genre conventions really shouldn’t matter. It’s also a bracing reminder that blockbuster mass entertainment can—with, yes, great effort—coexist with powerful art, in a year where some of music’s most brilliant minds (Lamar, Sufjan Stevens, Bjork) took the admirable but insular route. Here’s hoping Alexander Hamilton’s example goes on to inspire a generation of artists, and not just on Broadway.