Artist: Various, but mostly Lin-Manuel Miranda
Title: Hamilton: An American Musical
Genre: Hip-Hop Broadway Musical
Yes, it's as good as you've heard, even if you don't listen to rap. I, too, was daunted by the prospect of listening to an over two-hour soundtrack to a hip-hop musical when I don't listen to a lot of hip-hop in the first place (not hip-hop in English, at any rate). And I started it with the assumption that I would give up as soon as I got bored. And I not only finished it, I went back to re-listen to some of the stand-out tracks. The broadway juggernaut is based on Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton that lyricst/star/composer Lin-Manuel Miranda was reading on a beach in Hawaii, I presume while he was working on Moana. The musical covers the entire career of Hamilton (his early life is summed up in the first song) as told through the eyes of Aaron Burr, his rival who would eventually kill him in a duel. According to Miranda, Hamilton's life seemed especially well-suited to rap, a music that is associated primarily with black Americans. He was born into squalor and got out of it through his writing--which is essentially the hip-hop narrative. He was derided by his peers as an other, referred to at times as "immigrant" or "creole bastard." He and his friends were abolitionists. At one point the character of John Laurens raps about leading "the first black battalion," which sounds like an embellishment, but in historical fact that is legitimately what Laurens wanted to do.
The arrangements are relatively spare to give extra room to the vocalists, but there are some lovely little musical touches. My favorite is a sample of a horse neighing in Right Hand Man that's been cut up to sound like a record scratch. If you haven't heard any of it, the ratio of rapping to singing is probably a lot lower than what you're expecting (this is true of a lot of modern hip-hop as well). But something that I hadn't thought about at the time that's blindingly obvious now is that rap is extremely well-suited to a stage musical: it's energetic, it's danceable, it delivers lyrics (that is, story) quickly, it blends into basically any other music genre, it celebrates wordplay, and it's old enough to have a fairly rich history and array of sub-genres to tap into. Hamilton makes overt references to The Beastie Boys, Notorious B.I.G., and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. Oftentimes, differences in delivery are used to demonstrate character growth. Lafayette's first raps involve him stumbling over English pronunciations, but by the end of Act I, he delivers--in a French accent--literally the fastest lyrics in broadway history. Similarly, when Thomas Jefferson shows up in Act II, he's singing a jazz number. His early raps are awkward and forced, but over the course of the act, as he's become a more proficient politician, his raps become smoother and more complex. Not coincidentally, both characters are played by the same actor, Daveed Diggs on the soundtrack, who originated the role.
And it all works because Miranda is a hell of a storyteller. The first big set-piece of the show is My Shot, which centers on the refrain of "I will not throw away my shot"--a thematic element that will resonate throughout the show as a motivating factor for Alexander. It's no surprise that Burr is going to kill Hamilton; Burr says as much in the very first song. What's not as well known, and indeed what the entire show slowly points you towards, is that Hamilton died because he missed Burr on purpose, a practice known as "throwing away shot," and providing justification for what might have compelled him to make that decision. And over the course of two-and-a-half-ish hours (plus intermission), you get to see cabinet debates performed as rap battles, the nightmarish logistics of actually putting on a revolution with very little money, political backstabbery, and some business in Act II that will absolutely break your heart wide open.
It really is as good as you've heard.
Further listening: My Shot is emblematic of the show, but if you want a more thorough sampling, check out Alexander Hamilton, The Schuyler Sisters, You'll Be Back, Wait For It, Yorktown (History Has Its Eyes On You), Cabinet Battle #1, and The Room Where It Happens. Or you can just listen to the whole thing on YouTube.