fbpx The Musical (Non-Lyrical) Brilliance of Hamilton's Hip-Hop Vernacular | HowlRound Theatre Commons
Essay by

The Musical (Non-Lyrical) Brilliance of Hamilton's Hip-Hop Vernacular

Essay by

With Hamilton’s stratospheric rise, a rap-based show has finally entered the musical theatre pantheon. Other musicals tried to be the first, notably Todd Kreidler’s Holler If Ya Hear Me, featuring the music of Tupac Shakur, though I should also mention Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical In the Heights did give us a convincing glimpse of rap in a major production. But what we really needed was a huge critical and commercial hit like Hamilton to establish rap as music for the stage.

Yet with that barrier broken, we’ve come to a point where it’s time to assess whether or not rap is indeed the way forward. After all, the first rock musical, Hair, came out in 1967, which was just in the second decade of rock coming to prominence. If we assume rap’s prominence began roughly in 1979 with its first mainstream hit “Rapper’s Delight,” why did it take rap nearly four decades to convincingly rule the Broadway stage? Is it because of rap’s inherent qualities (or lack of qualities)?

Some critics complain they can’t understand the lyrics. They complain it’s too rhymey. But even that might be charitable next to some critics who are raising a much more disturbing question: Is rap even music at all?

If we assume rap’s prominence began roughly in 1979 with its first mainstream hit “Rapper’s Delight,” why did it take rap nearly four decades to convincingly rule the Broadway stage?

(Spoiler alert, not only does rap count as music, but it is exactly the kind of music that should, no, must, be in Broadway musicals if they are to survive and thrive.)

John McWhorter tackled this question in American Theatre magazine by first placing rap in the context of other important black contributions on the Great White Way, such as ragtime and jazz. He’s not against the idea of rap music being on stage, but he still concludes that rap might be good only for certain dramatic moments like wordy arguments, but that its spoken quality “offers more limited dramatic possibilities than ragtime, jazz, or even rock.”

You hear this echoed also in Terry Teachout’s review for The Wall Street Journal that claims Hamilton “contains no tunes, only melodically inert riffs that exist solely to carry the text.” To be fair, he was commenting on the Public Theatre production which was sonically less polished than the Broadway incarnation. But still, no tunes and inert riffs? One assumes that Teachout saw and heard the same show we all know and love, that he didn’t somehow see a strange acapella performance on the band’s day off.

Similarly Michael Riedel of the New York Post was quoted as saying, “…I don’t like hip-hop music…I like melody, and there are a couple of pretty ballads in there, but I don’t like rhyming for the sake of rhyming.” Notice the way he makes “hip-hop music” and “melody” seem mutually exclusive. (Note: Though “rap” can refer to just the vocals and “hip hop” can refer to an entire art movement, in this essay I will be using the terms “rap” and “hip-hop” interchangeably to refer to just the genre of music.)

So what gives with these critics? In Marilyn Stasio’s Variety review of Hamilton, she wrote, “The old, reliable Broadway show tune may be a thing of the past.” She might have been onto something. That old, reliable Broadway show tune (a reference to a “Guys and Dolls” lyric but also a codename for “jazz”) is the type of song McWhorter, Teachout, and Riedel were probably judging rap music against. In fact, McWhorter’s article was titled “Rap: Broadway’s New Jazz?”

Jazz, beginning with ragtime, was the musical style in vogue as the American musical theatre evolved in the first half of the 20th Century. Jazz continues to define the Broadway sound, even long after its halcyon days on the radio and in the pop charts are long gone. Teachout knows this firsthand. In addition to being a prominent critic, he also wrote Satchmo at the Waldorf, a widely-produced Louis Armstrong one-man play that exemplifies just how nicely jazz fits under that proscenium.

Though no single person codified jazz as the de facto style of Broadway, if I had to name just one person it’d probably be Leonard Bernstein. He memorably composed jazz-based scores for West Side Story and On the Town. Being a public figure, he even gave an hour-long televised lecture about the American musical comedy, which was later published in a book called The Joy of Music. In that lecture, he claimed one of the defining characteristics of the musical comedy was its use of urban jazz, which separated it from operettas like Gilbert and Sullivan shows and even, in his view, The King and I.

But while Bernstein might have seemed narrow in saying musicals could only use jazz, there was another expansive reason he said this. The underlying principle he believed in was that the American musical was defined by what he called the “musical vernacular,” or in other words, the music on the radio and in the pop charts—the music of the cool kids.

Leonard Bernstein lecturing about music.
Leonard Bernstein lecturing about music on Omnibus. Photo by CBS Photo © Warnecke.

When Bernstein said this in 1956, jazz was still very much on the radio and in the pop charts. As the West Side Story score reminds us, “Cool” then meant bebop. But when rock took over by the 60s, the vernacular had changed. True to his word, Bernstein’s next musical theatre piece, 1971’s Mass, actually incorporated rock.

Twenty years later, Jonathan Larson’s mission was to prove the vernacular principle in the 90s. In his autobiographical musical tick, tick…Boom!, Larson wants to write a musical with “real rock,” which he eventually did in real life with Rent. Yet he found this challenging, because as his stage persona says, “Broadway’s about sixty years behind anything you hear on the radio.” (Rap’s four-decade window seems breezy by Larson’s estimation.)

By the new century, the vernacular principle was again at work when Miranda wrote In the Heights. Miranda says he was inspired by a pop music trend. In the late 90s and early 2000s, the Latin craze was in full swing and brought to the fore such artists as Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Shakira, and Jennifer Lopez. Suddenly, the musical language of Miranda’s subject matter was in the commercial mainstream, capable of sustaining a Broadway hit. As Miranda himself put it, Latin culture had become “fair game.”

If you applied the vernacular principle today and asked, “What’s on the radio and in the pop charts now?” the answer would clearly be hip-hop and R&B, the styles of music most prevalent in Hamilton. In this way, Miranda may be the ultimate traditionalist, following Bernstein’s advice to its natural conclusion.

But couldn’t you make the case that rap is inherently different from other forms of pop? The words are spoken, not sung. And without a melody-based vocal, one could argue that the purely musical qualities of hip-hop are indeed “inert” and “exist solely to carry the text.” Just imagine if we stripped away Miranda’s brilliant words, what would be left to hold our attention?

Certainly in terms of melodic invention, rap is no match for jazz, which features a highly developed motivic language and a staggering number of inventive chords and chord changes all in daringly syncopated rhythms. Traditional musical analysis salivates at jazz’s expressive virtuosity. But next to this, almost any music might seem inadequate.

If jazz is Michelin rated, rap might seem like a meal at the kid’s table. Peer into rap’s mechanics, and you’ll find a lot of repetition: repeated samples, repeated chord progressions that use three or four basic chords, repeated melodies that often rely on the five-note pentatonic scale, repeated rhythms and on and on. Compared to the exquisite palate of jazz, rap seems to have empty calories. What could possibly be nourishing about a style of music essentially based on broken record repetition?

Yet the broken record is exactly the point!

Hip-hop is a new way of making music specifically based on two turntables looping actual physical records. In the Ice-T documentary Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, rapper Lord Jamar summarizes the creation of this new art form from the depths of poverty-stricken South Bronx. He explains “[Hip-hop was created] at a time when they were taking instruments...out of the schools. They tried to take the music from us...So what did we do? We took the...record player, the only thing that’s playing music in our…crib, and turned it into an instrument which it wasn’t supposed to be.”

Since rap’s natural language is the repeated loop, the critique of it can’t be that it uses inert repeated loops. We actually have to accept the loop as a given and to dig deeper to see if those loops are malleable enough for the artist to create thematic meaning.

Along with this new instrument came a hip-hop generation that hears differently. This is what Idris Goodwin was getting at when he wrote “Rap’s success is dependent on its context and the willingness of the audience to listen in a new way.” Saying Hamilton repeats a few inert riffs is mistaking the forest for the trees. Since rap’s natural language is the repeated loop, the critique of it can’t be that it uses inert repeated loops. We actually have to accept the loop as a given and to dig deeper to see if those loops are malleable enough for the artist to create thematic meaning.

Miranda does not disappoint. Listening to the cast album reveals an entire world of sonic meaning. In fact, I created a YouTube video series called How Hamilton Works to see if I could discuss musical craft without discussing the lyrics. Initially, I thought I would be done after one video (there are now five with more on the way), but as I got deeper, I was startled to uncover a brilliant lattice-work of musical themes (or leitmotifs) that should have made Teachout proud.

For example, the Aaron Burr chord progression (I, vi, iii) represents Aaron Burr’s character. It introduces him in the song “Aaron Burr, Sir” and comes up again notably in Burr’s ballad of longing “Wait for It” and Burr’s final lament in “The World Was Wide Enough.”

Why do those three chords (I, vi, iii) represent Burr? For one thing, there’s no turnaround chord (using a IV or V chord). In baseball terms, the turnaround is like being on third base ready to run back home. So what happens if you end a progression on a minor iii chord, which is what Burr’s does? Well, it’s kind of like being on second base and unable to go home. In fact, you literally have to “wait for” someone else to get you home. Sure enough, Burr’s character is perpetually stuck at second base, unable to advance career-wise even as Hamilton steals bases and hits home runs. The Burr chord progression conveys character to us without saying a word.

 Original Cast of Hamilton on Broadway.
Orignal Cast of Hamilton on Broadway. Photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

The third song in the show, “My Shot,” (i, III, iv, VI, V) is Hamilton’s “I Want” song, which refers to the song in every show that tells us what the hero wants. The “My Shot” chord progression (i, III, iv, VI, V) is dramatically different from Burr’s. With its minor to major trajectory, this progression drives forward and, by contrast, has a strong turnaround chord with the V chord. The minor chord to major chord lifts (i to III, iv to VI) represent upward striving and ambition, and in key moments when characters are expressing ambition, the “My Shot” progression can reliably be found. For example, it shows up when Washington tells Hamilton “history has its eyes on you.” It also shows up in “Satisfied,” Angelica’s torch song about lost love in the service of a greater ambition, the preservation of her family’s reputation. It’s thematically appropriate since Miranda is developing the idea of ambition to include its downside, never feeling satisfied.

But maybe Miranda got lucky with those two chord progressions? Perhaps he’s a poet who didn’t know it. Or maybe, as some have suggested, his talented arranger and orchestrator Alex Lacamoire is really responsible. While he did add some musical Easter eggs into the score, Lacamoire says that Miranda himself came up with the chord progressions and their meanings.

But for the sake of argument let’s suppose Miranda didn’t know what he was doing. You might even cite the fact that the Burr chord progression doesn’t show up in Burr’s big showstopper “The Room Where It Happens.” Surely if Burr’s progression represents Burr, then this is a huge oversight.

Except it’s not, because “The Room Where It Happens” is the exact moment that Aaron Burr finally decides to stop waiting and to go after what he wants. In the song’s big reveal, he sings, “I want to be in the room where it happens,” and at that precise moment, underneath we hear the “My Shot” chord progression, showing us Burr’s ambition finally blossoming. This is Burr’s want song just as “My Shot” was Hamilton’s. All this is being conveyed with those pesky “inert” repeated loops!

That’s not even the half of it. In my video series, you can find many more examples of Miranda’s nonlyrical genius using music in dramatic ways, and yes, this includes good old-fashioned melodic invention too. Miranda himself has even tweeted about my video series, acknowledging that his musical approach was “#ChessNotCheckers.”

But it shouldn’t be surprising that some people simply can’t hear Miranda’s sophisticated chess moves, because generally melody has been the primary way we expect our characters to express themselves. Critics weren’t looking for meaning in the looped chord progressions.

This paradigm shift may be why rap has taken forty years to win a Tony. I hope the complaint that hip-hop can’t be complex is a thing of the past. But to do that, we’ll also need to dispel two more misconceptions about how it does or doesn’t create meaning.

Misconception #1: Rap is only appropriate for stories about inner city youth or African Americans or some other situations which are stereotypically hip-hop related.

Reality: Those stereotypes about hip-hop are only what hip-hop signifies. Disentangle the signifiers from the signified, and objectively, you have a musical genre that is terrific at delivering a hyper-articulate verbal attack. That’s why it’s perfect for a story about, say, the hyper-articulate Founding Fathers. And remember that rap was also used to great effect in the opening number of The Music Man, decades before it took on any cultural baggage. We shouldn’t limit its possibilities to only that baggage either.

Misconception #2: Rap is unable to handle the more subtle moments of a story.

Just as melody can express a range of emotions, rap need not be limited dramatically or emotionally. In hip-hop, you will find the entire range of human experience, including tender sentiments like love and loss. In the song “The World Was Wide Enough,” Alexander stares down a bullet heading toward him from Burr’s gun. With time slowed to a crawl, the song is gripping and heartbreaking as it shows us the final thoughts of our protagonist. Was this moment less tender just because it was rapped and not sung? I don’t think so, and in fact, it can’t be sung, because Hamilton foreshadows his death as being “like a beat without a melody.”

In the debate over pop music, it’s instructive to remember that ragtime, jazz, and rock, though now embraced, were each initially greeted with conservative naysayers who cried out against the immorality and decadence of the new. Often these criticisms were tinged with issues of race and class, and hip-hop has certainly had more than its fair share of this. While criticizing rap in musicals doesn’t necessarily make you a racist, it does make you guilty of pronouncing a verdict before the jury is in. Now that the glass ceiling has been shattered, let’s see how far other writers can go using hip-hop.

Even Sondheim agrees. In his book Look, I Made a Hat, he calls the use of rap in Hamilton “one pathway to the future.” He should know. He put rap in Into the Woods back in 1987.

From Bernstein to Sondheim to Jonathan Larson to Miranda, the vernacular principle has and will continue to be our best way to keep the old, reliable institution of musical theatre forever young.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First

Your video series on Hamilton is outstanding -- I'm a middle-aged guy with very little prior knowledge of music theory, and you've opened my eyes/ears to a much deeper appreciation of Miranda's brilliance. And now that I've read this, I'm also impressed by the disarming graciousness of your responses to a couple of highly critical comments here, comments that offended me (as a fan of yours). I'd have found it difficult to turn the other cheek as you did, by responding to the substance of those remarks in a way that was neither offensive or defensive. That's admirable.

Thanks for your comment! Glad to hear you enjoyed the Youtube series. I'm working on a new video as we speak! And yes, it's so important, especially now, to engender sane, intelligent discourse. And I will try my best to do that, even if it means having to admit some shortcomings.

Well-written article. It is worth noting that from the 1970s onward, attempts to blend any type of popular (contemporary, as heard on the radio) music have met with critical resistance. In the late 1990s, a composer named Frank Wildhorn attempted to blend country music with American history in "The Civil War," but this effort was almost universally panned in NY. (To be fair, the show may work better as an album than as a show, as it's a rather episodic series of vignettes.) Lloyd Webber, of course, is notorious for dividing audiences and critics. Part of this institutional resistance is due to musical theater pedagogy. In the 1960s, Lehman Engel--the founder of the BMI workshop--wrote a number of treatises in which he insisted that pop music does not belong in musical theater. This doctrine has been slow to release its hold in more than a few circles, in which it is taken as gospel that the way to write musical theater is the way it was written in the mid-20th century: "Oklahoma!" to "Fiddler on the Roof." To understand why the Broadway community has been slow to embrace rap, hip-hop, or any type of popular music, one has to understand the history of musical theater pedagogy or writing instruction.

The premise of the article is flawed. Please do your research on hip hop theatre. The pioneers of this movement (who've all acknowledged their inception as a continuation of other forms) include Will Power, Hip Hop Theater Junction, Kamilah Forbes, Toni Blackman, Universes, Rickerby Hinds, Rennie Harris, etc). Have you interviewed the creative team of Hamilton? They acknowledge that they did not pioneer this movement but Lin was actually a teen coming to the shows of the folks mentioned above and their fusion of hip hop elements deeply informed his trajectory. Much props to Lin for building on their legacy.

I certainly hope I didn't come off as saying Miranda pioneered the hip-hop theatre movement. My goal was just to point out why his particular brand of rap had broken through in a Broadway musical and what it might mean for future composers. Without a doubt, Miranda was inspired by the great artists that came before him, and he goes out of his way to acknowledge it. So I appreciate you pointing out some of their names here.

Lin-Manuel Miranda adapted rap to musical form without showing disrespect to any of the conventions of it. It's brilliant. I think if rap wasn't frowned on by predominatly white, established theatre society as well as white society in general, it wouldn't be perceived to be such a threat to form. Miranda learned form to improve upon it's function.

Also-- you omitted Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, which premiered and moved to Broadway nearly 20 years ago. This omission badly damages, if not negates, your argument.

In fact, in light of the history of musical theatre, the use of rap is a descendent of opera's sprechstimme, notated, of course by Schoenberg with a cross in place of the note. By contrast, Miranda places the words in the libretto but not the rhythm or pitch. Furthermore, The popular musical form of rap is a gorgeously experimental musical, artistic, psychological and spiritual expression. In your essay, unfortunately, you have made a facile and simplistic argument. It compares and contrasts elements which are not equal or parallel. You haven't thought deeply about any of this. I have read your bio, Mr. Ho, and your talent and training requires a much better piece than this one.

I think most scholars trace the origins of rap from the African diaspora, not from European art song. That sprechstimme bares some resemblance to rap's surface technique is certainly interesting, but not persuasive. Further, I do believe Miranda notates the rhythms of the raps as they have to fit snugly into mostly 4/4 looped beats. The looping beat in rap (and not sprechstimme) is one vital characteristic that defines it.