Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Recording [Atlantic, 2015]
To get value from these 142 minutes of audible libretto you must first--this is essential--buy the physical, a double-wide double-CD redolent of the early jewelbox era. Next, play both discs casually a few times, resisting the temptation to snort "This is 'rap'?" Then reserve a few hours and replay it in its entirety while following every word in booklets so cunningly designed you always know who's saying what. If after that you're not taken with how skillfully Lin-Manuel Miranda compresses 30 years of history, sell the thing--it does hog shelf space. Me, I was so gobsmacked I can now hear past its musical peculiarities. Not only isn't this hip-hop, it isn't pop, and not just because the tunes are vestigial. It's theater music in which almost everything is sung and even the spoken parts come with music, like recitative in opera. So naturally the singers are theater singers. They enunciate, hit the notes, act a little. But starting with Manuel in the title role, they don't command the sonic singularities with which pop stars beat off the competition, nor stand out like Gypsy's brassy Ethel Merman or South Pacific tomboy Mary Martin. I can't vouch for the civics-class democracy of Miranda's historical vision and, despite the digs at Jefferson and the nice plays on immigration, find him too subtle as regards slavery. (Nontrivial factoid: both Hamilton and his deadly rival Burr belonged to the New York Manumission Society.) But I can attest that the intrinsic intellectual interest he powers up here is so impressive it's exciting. And I can also report a surprising emotional bonus: two songs about love and death--"Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story" and, even better, the agonized, atypically melodic "It's Quiet Uptown"--that make me tear up a little. Which only happened, to repeat, because I'd read along for two and a half hours. A