“21 Chump Street” is a goofy 14-minute-long musical from 2014 about a high school senior named Justin Laboy who unwittingly sells weed to an undercover police officer. Written and narrated by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright-rapper-countless-other-titles-I-could-put-in-this-hyphenation Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical is an obscure footnote in the prodigious creator’s vast and varied discography.
In fact it proved to have a greater impact than it seems; the catchy and poignant show marks the first time Miranda shared the stage with long-time collaborator Anthony Ramos, who starred as Laboy.
Since that initial 15 minutes of fame, Ramos has thrived in a beloved role in the original cast of “Hamilton,” he’s turned that stage success into on-screen performances in Spike Lee’s Netflix series “She’s Gotta Have It” and A Star is Born and he will star in the upcoming film adaptation of Miranda’s “In the Heights.”
Most recently, Ramos decided to tackle pop music by signing a record deal and releasing his debut album—The Good & the Bad, released on Oct. 25. The album is catchy and fun, a mix of pop and funk with some Latin flair that calls back to a traditional pop sound that feels forgotten in modern music; no lo-fi study jams here. It also tackles atypical subject matter, subverting traditional pop-music tropes and proving that Ramos will be a force in the entertainment world, in any capacity, for years to come. Anthony Ramos, WTF?
While Ramos’s dual “Hamilton” roles got him his start, his time on the stage also served as the catalyst for creating his own album. In a phone interview for the Unionville Times, Ramos described how performing someone else’s story gave him space for introspection. “Every night, I was singing songs about revolution and telling stories about history. At the end of the day, it was someone else’s story. After you sing those words over 600 times, you think—damn, what’s my story,” he said.
That’s ultimately what The Good & the Bad boils down to, the singer’s reflection on his life and career—his story. It’s surprisingly intimate for a pop album, imbuing emotion and earnestness to simple lyrics that make the album’s messages and overarching themes easy to pick up on and enjoy.
No song on the album is a better example of this than its opening track, “Dear Diary.” It serves as an open letter to the singer’s parents, recounting everything from career ambitions to a broken relationship with his father. The song’s quiet soulfulness inspires reflection on the listener’s own relationships and the lessons you learn from them, setting the stage for the personal nature of the album to follow.
As is the case with lots of good pop music, The Good & the Bad is at its best when reflecting on romance. Ramos’s approach to the subject matter is unique, however, because he leans into the minutiae of it all rather than glorifying one-night-stands or attempting to distill what love feels like into a kitschy pop song. “One More Hour,” for example, is about the particulars of barhopping and how easy it is to lose track of time on a good date.
Ramos’s muse is clearly his fiancé—former “Hamilton” co-star Jasmine Cephas-Jones—and nowhere is that clearer than the album’s best song, “Mind Over Matter.” The song details the merits of a long-term relationship, explaining how it’s deeper than pure physical attraction.
Also, folks, if this article doesn’t inspire you to listen to the album then at least let it inspire you to watch the music video for “Mind over Matter.” Ramos explained to the New York Post how “[he] had this idea for this video … and [Cephas-Jones] goes, ‘Well, you ain’t doin’ that with no video vixen!’” The resulting video, co-starring the couple, shows them baking in the kitchen which leads to them … not baking anymore. I’ll leave you to fill in the blanks, but the video is fun and sensual and does more to showcase the long-term love in question than just the song ever could.
The album also touches on Ramos’s Puerto-Rican heritage in “Isabella,” the power of a woman’s (not necessarily romantic) love in “Woman” and the paradoxical nature of not taking your own advice in “Figure it Out.” Intimate specificity pervades the album and it is welcome, as Ramos invites the listener to relate to him and consider their own lives with the same vulnerability.
Fans of “Hamilton” have known Anthony Ramos’s name for years, but if you didn’t know him before, take note now. Ramos is a multi-talented force in entertainment and the budding star will certainly be a household name sooner rather than later.