Music

‘Hamilton’ Highlights Hip-Hop’s Potential For Storytelling

Last Friday, in honor of the 4th of July and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Disney plus premiered its film version of the insanely popular Broadway musical, Hamilton. The show — written, produced, and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda — reimagines the story of the oft-overlooked founding father of the US through colorful and complex hip-hop with a diverse cast of non-white actors standing in to tell the story of our history through modern eyes.

Like many folks, the Hamilton film — shot at a live performance with the original cast at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York — was scheduled viewing at my house. All told, I had watched the full show twice by the end of the long weekend. However, unlike many viewers, I’d come to Hamilton in a strange, roundabout way that made some of the show’s surprises less surprising, but no less impactful.

I first discovered Hamilton through its Original Cast Recording (that’s Broadway for “soundtrack”) and was instantly enamored — actually, obsessed — with how it utilized and highlighted the endless potential of hip-hop’s faculty for storytelling. I memorized the title character’s impressive, labyrinthine verses the same way I had over two decades of rhymes from Common, Jay-Z, and Talib Kweli.

Even knowing what the live show technically looked like via a serendipitously discovered bootleg stream (shout-out to whoever risked those $1000 tickets by whipping out a cell phone and having the nerve to upload it to YouTube), the Hamilton film blew me completely away. I’ll let others describe the sights — what struck me was that even with the choreography, lighting, and masterful performance of its collective cast, the part that stood out most was still that revolutionary use of hip-hop’s capacity to tell an innumerable breadth of stories and how it just begged for that power to be put to even more innovative use in the future.

There’s not much overlap between the sort of crowd that frequents the Great White Way and those who might be found in the underground clubs that spawn some of hip-hop’s greatest acts. In fact, Broadway’s nickname has often been mocked as a commentary on its casting practices and its inaccessibility to the average person to even see a show. The Hamilton film is one hell of a remedy to both, broadening the horizons of musical theater farther than they had ever been before — but not hip-hop. While hip-hop wasn’t made for this, it already had the first and most important needed quality to adapt to its new environment — it can be used to tell practically any story.

In fact, hip-hop has always been at its best when it told the stories of its characters, whether that was in the form of colorful flights of fancy or authentic autobiographical accounts of real-life events. The style is naturally suited to all kinds of formats — including musical theater like Hamilton. Within the show, Miranda uses a variety of cadences and lyrical devices to distinguish characters’ intelligence, dispositions, and backgrounds, highlighting the title character’s relentless drive and intellect with intricate, clever bars that describe the events of the American Revolution, the framing of the Constitution, and Hamilton’s eventual downfall.

Among hip-hop fans, there’s a misconception — or maybe a joke — going around online that Hamilton would be a three-hour episode of Schoolhouse Rock, aimed at kids and demeaning the intelligence and craftsmanship that hallmark some of the greatest storytelling raps. And while it’s true that the show did constitute many theater fans’ first real experience with the depth and breadth hip-hop is capable of, the show is also more than capable of surprising both hip-hop and theater fans, bringing that Venn Diagram closer together than ever.

For instance, hip-hop fans are well aware of storytelling tracks like Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story,” A Tribe Called Quest’s “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo,” Common Sense’s “I Used To Love H.E.R.,” Jean Grae’s “My Story,” MF Doom’s “Fancy Clown,” or Nas’ “I Gave You Power,” to say nothing of someone like Eminem, whose catalog includes entire novels worth of narrative lyricism in the form of tracks like “‘97 Bonnie & Clyde,” “Guilty Conscience,” and “Stan,” perhaps his best-known and most impactful song. Theater fans impressed by the feats of verbal gymnastics on Hamilton tracks like “Guns And Ships,” “Washington On Your Side,” or the two “Cabinet Battle” debates between Daveed Diggs’ (of art-rap group .clipping) Thomas Jefferson and Miranda’s Hamilton would do well to familiarize themselves with the above classics and more.

Meanwhile, rap fans who snarkily demean the use of rap to tell the historical story of the founding fathers would do well to remember that Lupe Fiasco once imagined a project building as an anime mecha on “Daydreamin’,” that RZA and his motley crew tapped into a variety of dark fantasies on the oft-derided but later reclaimed horrorcore Gravediggaz experiment, that rappers like Ghostface Killah, Kool Keith, and MF Doom have utilized a cadre of alter egos to tell stories that don’t fit within the milieu of hip-hop’s “from the streets” archetype. Entire albums have been devoted to high-concept narrative, from Masta Ace’s A Long, Hot Summer to The Roots’ … And Then You Shoot Your Cousin to Open Mike Eagle’s Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. Digable Planets’ Ishmael Butler even linked up with Tendai “Baba” Maraire to form Shabazz Palaces and release multiple Afrofuturistic space operas in the guise of an alien visitor to our world commenting on the ills of society.

And lest we all forget, Hamilton wasn’t even the first time hip-hop was applied to musical theater. In 2001, MTV fused rap with opera to create Carmen: A Hip-Hopera, which remade Carmen Jones, the 1954 Dorothy Dandridge musical update of the original opera. While it was considered something of an oddity in its day, it’s notable for launching Beyonce’s acting career and for starring many respected and popular acts of the turn of the millennium, including Bow Wow, Da Brat, Mos Def, Rah Digga, and Wyclef Jean. Although critically derided, the film is now millennial lore and inspired a wave of celebration on the announcement of its addition to Netflix’s streaming library in 2019. Unlike Carmen, though, Hamilton shows the potential of fusing hip-hop and musical theater when guided by sufficient respect for both.

This is largely due to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s grounding as both an MC and a theater acolyte. Before opening Hamilton in 2015, Miranda was a member of the rap improv troupe Freestyle Love Supreme alongside other notable actor-rappers like Daveed Diggs and Utkarsh Ambudkar. Manuel isn’t only a theater kid; on “Wrote My Way Out” from the 2016 Hamilton companion compilation The Hamilton Mixtape, he reminisces on being bullied by kids at school for being a bookworm. In a 2016 interview with the WTF podcast, he revealed that the bully was another well-respected storytelling rapper, Immortal Technique. Coming from the neighborhood and the culture of hip-hop gave Miranda the wherewithal to include sly references to hip-hop history and lyrical shout-outs to Mobb Deep, The Notorious B.I.G., and Busta Rhymes. Listening to the cast recording is like a hip-hop fan Easter egg hunt; that thrill of recognition when you catch the references affirms that this may be a Broadway show, but it’s just as much for lifelong adherents of hip-hop as it is for theater kids.

And that’s the best part about Hamilton. It’s both hip-hop and musical theater. It doesn’t have to give more of itself to either side of the equation because both style and format are much more elastic than they’ve ever been credited with being. Hip-hop can stretch itself to fit conceptual albums, improv shows, head-to-head competition and more — why shouldn’t it also apply to singing, dancing, and playing to the cheap seats? Likewise, why should theater be closed to kids who grew up listening more to the rhymes of Cardi B, J. Cole, and Kendrick Lamar than to the cast recordings of Grease, The Phantom Of The Opera, and Rent?

It helps that Hamilton received co-signs from the likes of Busta Rhymes, Common, The Roots, and even Wiz Khalifa on The Hamilton Mixtape. It also helps that many of the show’s most elaborate rhymes are delivered by Diggs, a gifted rapper in his own right who even tried to adapt hip-hop to another format: The ill-fated ABC sitcom The Mayor. While The Mayor wasn’t quite the success Hamilton has been, its critical reception confirmed the concept could travel. Hip-hop has never just been about selling drugs, flexing on haters, and threatening enemies, as many like to portray it. But few acknowledge that it can be a space journey, a horror tale, a love letter, or even just a big joke. The world, it turns out, is indeed wide enough to encompass hip-hop in all of these forms and more. We can wait for it — or like the stage version of Hamilton, we can make it happen and leave behind an even greater legacy for storytelling in hip-hop.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

×