Hamilton Album Review: Starting a Revolution Pt. 2

By Trevor Durham on September 25, 2015

Truth be told, the album of Hamilton is most of the show. As previously said, it is an opera- you don’t need much context. The entire story unfolds musically, and everybody I’ve shared this with has found each lyric more than adequate. Don’t hesitate to go listen (it’s not like you have the option of seeing it).

Now, to dig into the review itself. How does one review a musical album such as this? Do we call it the soundtrack? Do I review the show? How about historically speaking, shall I discuss the cruelly perfect historical allusions (such as The World Turned Upside Down, actual quotes from speeches, or just the cruelty of using bits of Hamilton and Burr’s actual letters as lyrics)?

Well, for this article, it must be something of all three. Let’s get it started and hot.

The album kicks off by introducing us to the chaotic narrator, Aaron Burr. Lin portrays his Burr as one completely knowing of his crime to come, in the style of Jesus Christ Superstar’s Judas, and with the ferocity of Les Mis’ Javert. Leslie Odom Jr. is arguably the lead character, and his vocals throughout (especially in two of the catchiest tunes, Wait For It and The Room Where It Happens) are so infuriatingly emotional that each song he’s in drips with performance. Close your eyes, and Burr stares back.

In the vein of singular performances, no review can glaze over Daveed Diggs. Doubling as Marquis de LaFayette in the first act (CD, whatever), and Thomas Jefferson in the second, Diggs brings forth such vocal dexterity that you almost need to rewind and hear his flows again. No doubt his previous experience as a rapper assisted, but his clipping flows are impossible to reproduce while being so comprehensible even your grandma can hear the shade. His LaFayette blurs his words like Busta, while the bumpy staccato of Jefferson’s jazz brings memories of Big Sean. The shame is that I’d rather listen to Diggs any day of the week, having Washington On Your Side, What’d I Miss, and Guns and Ships as possibly the best songs on the album.

Christopher Jackson provides the foil for most of the rowdy and impulsive characters in the show as General George Washington, your favorite first President. His round voice echoes the most ominous lyrics (“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”, “History has its eyes on you,” and “Let us show them how to say goodbye”) behind the heavy songs, the ones who remind you how human he was. Hearing the internal conflicts, in-fighting, and insubordination Washington dealt with humanizes a man we see as almost immortal. When Washington gives his farewell number, it’s hard to not bawl.

Who else to mention? Phillipa Soo (playing the broken, reliable, loving wife of Hamilton) as the emotional powerhouse, who’s finale gives the heaviest meaning to any show in recent memory? Renee Elise Goldsberry (Hamilton’s sister-in-law), whose unreciprocated love for Hamilton is, in itself, a tragic opera? Her reprise of Phillipa’s optimistic love song is devastating. So are both death scenes we are thrown into by Anthony Ramos, whose changes rival Diggs? I could write on about the sultry temptress Jasmine Cephas Jones, the Tech N9ne dexterity and ferocity that Okieriete Onaodowan gives us as Hercules Muligan/James Madison, or each ensemble members’ incredible backing vocals. Let me make mention of Jonathan Groff (everybody’s favorite Glee star and Spring Awakening cast member), who gives us the bratty King George III in the stylings of a British pop-stars break-up number. His three numbers will never leave your head, and leave you crying of laughter.

There is no way to adequately review this album without an endless word-count. Each performer is an A-lister in terms of ability, showing us a range of unmatched proportions. Drake and Future? Kendrick and J. Cole? I’ll take Jefferson, Madison, and Burr any day. It’s preposterous to tell you that the best rap album of this decade is from a Broadway musical, but stranger things have happened. The recurring motifs of each character (Hamilton’s “Not throwing away my shot”, Burr’s “Talk less, smile more”, Angelica’s “You will never be satisfied”, and more) repeat in critical moments, often inverted meaning into heart crushing realizations. There are multiple moments of emotional turmoil, through death and heart-break in Hamilton’s life. There’s no music like this, no show, no movie, no books. The blending of styles and ideas is insurmountable to understand without almost a course-load of study on these songs.

I haven’t mentioned much of Lin up to this point, in my ‘detailed’ Hamilton album review. I wanted him to remain a bit back- the man’s gotten enough fame to get Disney to hire him. It’s thanks to him that we are undergoing a musical (wordplay) revolution, and damn it, I love the man. His flows, even when unsupported in his a-capella death sequence, are so musical that they stand above his contemporaries. The man is a brilliant, tactical genius who can’t be matched by any living man. His show has given us an impossibly high bar to reach before we even attempt to re-enter the game, and he doesn’t even recognize how much he’s affected every person who has sat in his show. His work drive matches his topic-matter, the man who created our national treasury and established the country we know and love.

Thank you, Lin. Thank you from the high-school theatre performers looking for a reason to continue performing. Thank you from the writers who forgot why they’re doing this. Thank you from the musicians who needed to see that new styles are still out there to be made. Thank you from the underrepresented in performing arts, showing that YES, a black man can perform Aaron Burr, and damn well deserves an award for it. Thank you for giving us something to tell us that anybody can do this. Thank you. Thank you.

Hamilton is available to stream on NPR, purchase on iTunesAmazon, and more. Physical release October 16th. Hamilton is currently playing eight shows a week at the Richard Roger’s Theatre, New York.

Songs of Note: Alexander Hamilton, You’ll Be Back, Wait For It, Yorktown, Guns and Ships, History Has Its Eyes On You, Non-Stop, What’d I Miss, Cabinet Battle #1 and #2, The Room Where It Happens, Washington On Your Side, One Last Time, Burn, The Reynold’s Pamphlet, Election of 1800, Your Obedient Servant, The World Was Wide Enough. But really, the entire piece should be listened to as a singular work.

I write some things, read lots of things, and try to spend as much time as possible with food in my presence.

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