It was written in the books of Europeans we were savage
That our history was insignificant and minds below average
But how can one diminish the worth
Of the most imitated culture on this Earth? – Akrobatik, Black Dialogue

TL;DR

Rap music is extremely brainy. This is objectively obvious, but American culture outside of hip-hop culture has been systematically ignoring it for decades and insisting that rappers are dumb.

Enter Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton. The show has other aims too, but one of them is to explicitly combat this by connecting hip-hop’s linguistic creativity and power – “words’ ability to make a difference” – to the intellectual seriousness and historical import of the writing at the heart of the nation’s founding.

We have responded by enthusiastically missing the point: elevating LMM as a genius, and Hamilton as a work of genius, while continuing to ignore the brilliance of the rap luminaries he is explicitly crediting.

At length

This post was inspired by the following episode:

I was having lunch with a charming gentleman who happens to be the executive director of a media institution. (I will call him “Ed.”) We got on the topic of Hamilton, and Ed gushed:

“The words! The words are so brilliant! It never occurred to me that those words rhymed!”

Ed is not alone in this particular enthusiasm. There are a lot of things about Hamilton that have resonated with audiences, but this type of response (“The words! The WOOORRRDDDS!! Lin-Manuel’s genius words!!!”) is a throughline. (Here is a print example.) And, I appreciate the enthusiasm. The words are frickin awesome.

I am the A-L E-X A-N D
E-R we are meant to be
A colony that runs independently
Meanwhile Britain keeps sh*ttin on us endlessly
Essentially, they tax us relentlessly
Then King George turns around and runs a spendin spree
He ain’t never gonna set his descendants free
So there will be a revolution in this century! – Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton, Hamilton

Nonetheless, I left lunch secretly pissed. Not at Ed, but at our culture as a whole. Here is the rant that my brain generated:

<rant>

The lyrical pyrotechnics on display in Hamilton are nothing more (nor less) than competent rapping.

There are a lot of things to love about Hamilton, but what you’re talking about — the rhymes — Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t invent that. He learned it from Biggie, Mobb Deep, Busta. So on. I believe he’d be the first to tell you this.

It’s like it took a highly celebrated Broadway musical lionizing a Founding Father to get you, finally, at long last, to listen intently to rap lyrics, for the first time ever. But then, having listened, and having of course been blown away, you proceeded to tell yourself that you were listening to the unique genius of LMM, rather than acknowledge the radiance hip-hop put before you this whole time.

What’s ironic is that calling your attention to this brilliance is one of the clear intentions of the show. Ever since the first public appearance of the opening number, LMM has made it clear that he sees Alexander Hamilton’s story (“impoverished Carribean immigrant uses his way with words to rise to fame and influence”) as a hip-hop story.

Hamilton literally wrote a verse to get him off an island — that’s the most hip ­hop shit ever. He transcends the struggle, and if you look at your favorite rapper, that’s most likely what they did. – LMM

In this way the play asserts that hip-hop (not Hamilton but hip-hop) is continuous with no less an intellectual and political achievement than the nation’s founding.

So you have a lot of d*mn nerve gushing over this very play while simultaneously acting like you have never heard rhymes like this before.

</rant>

I want to make it very clear that I am not trying to throw Ed under the bus. He’s a great guy. And while his comment did lead me to the thoughts above, it was only because his point of view seemed emblematic of something much bigger. It’s actually part of the lore around Hamilton that both Stephen Sondheim, the legendary musical composer and wordsmith, and Ron Chernow, the biographer who wrote the book on Alexander Hamilton that inspired LMM to create the show, were initially skeptical about hip-hop’s power to tell such a nuanced story.

My point is their skepticism. If American culture had been able to be objective about what hip-hop was doing this whole time, it wouldn’t have taken Stephen Sondheim till this late date to see its sharpness and sophistication. Ample evidence has been all over the place for decades. Sondheim of all people would have recognized kindred spirits.

So while you fumin I’m consumin mango juice under Polaris
Ya just embarrassed, cuz it’s ya last tango in Paris – Lauryn Hill, Zealots

I’m submitting that rap music is not just one of America’s great artistic achievements but one of its great intellectual achievements.

I bomb atomically. Socrates’ philosophies and hypotheses
Can’t define how I be droppin these mockeries – Inspectah Deck, Triumph

But it’s high time for me to hop off any kind of soapbox I may have just climbed, because this is supposed to be dental hygiene: I am not trying to act pure. The truth is that while I beat Ed, Stephen Sondheim, and Ron Chernow by 20 years, I too was late when it came to hearing rap clearly.

I grew up a very nerdy, meticulously well-behaved, and somewhat delicate white kid in an East Coast city. I got to junior high in the early 90’s, by which time rap was beginning to be everywhere, but I didn’t connect to much of it right away. At the time I was listening to folky stuff continuous with what I was raised on. It was serious between me, Paul Simon, and Tracy Chapman. The defiant attitude, crime metaphors, and drug talk of NWA and Cypress Hill didn’t make me feel safe or welcome.

They weren’t supposed to, of course.

What I had trouble seeing at the time — what our country’s ambient but hidden racial ideology meticulously trains us not to see — is that this is completely independent of whether NWA or Cypress Hill were being smart, or interesting, or substantive. Of course they were.

Nonetheless, I resolved the discomfort of my unease with the music’s content by feeling intellectually superior. This is retrospectively preposterous, since it is no longer possible for me to hear these same artists without being amazed by their cleverness. But I was not the first nor the last person (white or otherwise) to make this move. My purpose in telling you this story is the hope that some readers might recognize themselves in it. Maybe distinguishing between “dumb” and “not designed to make you feel at home” is a lot to ask of a white 12-year-old in a country like ours; honestly, I don’t really think it is, but what do I know?

Well, I at least know that when I got to high school, and Biggie dropped, I assumed, entirely incorrectly, that he was just some *sshole who didn’t have anything to offer me. I wasn’t listening.

We used to fuss when the landlord dissed us
No heat, wonder why Christmas missed us
Birthdays was the worst days
Now we sip champagne when we thirstay – Notorious B.I.G., Juicy

It’s not a coincidence that the first rap album I ever bought (in 1994 or so) was the resolutely nonthreatening Tribe Called Quest album containing Can I Kick It?, and the album that fully converted me was The Fugees’ The Score, which, among many other (retrospectively much more amazing) things, name-checks Tracy Chapman in the opening track.

This is a confession of sorts, because although I don’t think it’s unreasonable that I didn’t really get into rap before I felt invited into it in this way, I do think it’s emblematic of a bigger problem that it took this type of invitation for me to even perceive it clearly, as I’ve been at pains to show. But I’m also pointing, in a morally neutral way, to the present moment and Hamilton. My story is that once I felt invited, I started listening to rap (not just hearing but listening), and increasingly on its own terms as time passed. As I did this, the distortion in my young perception fell away. Well, as of Hamilton, we have all, even the squarest of us (Ron Chernow? Ed?), officially been invited.

So, as with any time one receives an invitation, we now have a choice about whether to accept it. We can insist that Hamilton‘s lyricism is the product of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s unique genius, or we can start listening.

LMM himself could not have made it clearer which one he wants us to do. In addition to releasing a Spotify playlist back in 2015 of songs that inspired him while writing the show, he produced an album, The Hamilton Mixtape, handing the show back to other artists to remix. Some of them are clearly people LMM has admired for a very long time. All of them are, equally clearly, people he thinks we should all be listening to.

The most iconic song from the show is My Shot (“hey yo I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy and hungry…”), and The Hamilton Mixtape gives a certain pride of place to Busta Rhymes by giving him the dominant verse on that remix. There’s something so fitting about this. When Busta’s amazing gravely voice enters it’s like a homecoming: like meeting the teacher after spending a long time with the disciple. There’s no other way for me to close this post than with that verse.

Throughout my travels and journeys through life I been searchin
And been learnin to be the type of person
To display how determined I get when I’m certain
Inside I feel like fire that’s burnin
Like a knife that is turnin, I fight while I’m hurtin
Sometimes they’re right ’cause life is a burden
Like the pain from a bite that’ll worsen
Tryna stifle the light that’ll shine on me first and
Before I ride in a hearse and…