It occurred to me earlier this semester, when a professor put on “Cabinet Battle #1” to school us on the beginnings of the federal tax system, that Hamilton must have been the best thing ever to happen to legal scholars. As an unabashed fan of the musical, I get it — but alongside the seemingly ageless Schoolhouse Rock, Hamilton’s had to do a lot of heavy lifting as our go-to device for zazzing up American legal history with a song.
Enter 27: The Most Perfect Album. You might already know More Perfect, a WNYC podcast beloved by many a law student for its deep dives into key Supreme Court cases. For the podcast’s third season, which kicked off Tuesday, host Jad Abumrad and the More Perfect team say they wanted to try something a little different: They reached out to a diverse pool of top-notch musicians and invited them to create songs inspired by the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The result is an album-length playlist spanning everything from folk to R&B to spoken word to mariachi, made by artists who represent every facet of what America looks like today. And the podcast? Each new episode this season will serve as “liner notes” for the songs on the album, providing historical-legal background on the amendments covered and situating them in the present day.
Maybe this all sounds a little gimmicky. But if you can make it past the structural conceit, The Most Perfect Album offers a wealth of musical enjoyment. The songs range from the literal (Nnamdi Ogbonnaya’s madcap narration of the history of the 15th Amendment) to the impressionistic (Adia Victoria’s Southern-gothic tale of a flight from an angry mob, paired with the 7th Amendment’s right to a jury trial); the artists, from Pulitzer winners (Caroline Shaw) to student ensembles (The Mellow Tones). To the extent there’s a common thread, it’s that each track, in its own way, offers a vital commentary on the living, evolving nature of our nation’s founding document.
Below, in no particular order, I list eight highlights from 27: The Most Perfect Album. If you’re not already subscribed to More Perfect, you can fix that via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or anywhere else you get your podcasts. And do check out the Most Perfect Album multimedia website — there, you’ll find the text of the amendments, bite-sized explanations of their significance via the National Constitution Center, and free downloads of each of the 35 tracks.
1. Dolly Parton, “19th Amendment”
Dolly Parton might be the hardest-working woman in country music. This year alone, she’s been recognized as the artist with the most decades with a top 20 hit on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, announced a new Netflix series based on her songs, released the first single from the soundtrack she’s written for the Jennifer Aniston comedy Dumplin’, and donated her 100 millionth book through the children’s literacy nonprofit she founded. Add to that list of accomplishments this ode to women’s suffrage, which features Dolly as storyteller, megaphone-wielding activist, and wonderfully ribald comic. Particularly charming: her shout-out to her home state of Tennessee, whose ratifying vote enacted the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.
2. The Slants, “18th & 21st Amendments”
Constitutional scholars are probably more likely than music fans to know The Slants, who convinced the Supreme Court last year that they had the right to register their band’s name as a trademark, even though the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office considered it disparaging. So when More Perfect contacted the band to write a song about the First Amendment, says frontman Simon Tam, it felt a little on the nose. They chose instead to address the amendments that, respectively, enacted and repealed Prohibition. The song, a rousing synth-rock anthem, plays on the happy coincidence that the amendment numbered 21 is the one that let America drink legally again.
3. Flor de Toloache, “2nd Amendment”
Flor de Toloache is a Grammy-winning, all-female mariachi group that’s recently earned mainstream recognition touring with artists like Chicano Batman and Dan Auerbach. Here, the band deploys its punchy brass and flawless vocal harmonies in a wry declamation on the right to keep and bear arms. Though their subject matter is one of the most polarizing issues in American politics, these mariachis keep their lyrics darkly funny: “Cuidado que ahí viene el oso / El oso con sus dos brazos” (Careful, here comes the bear / The bear with its two arms).
4. Bette Smith, “13th Amendment” / Kash Doll feat. Ant Clemons & Andre “Dre” Harris, “13th Amendment”
Host Abumrad explains in Tuesday’s More Perfect episode that some amendments are represented by more than one song on the album, simply because artists were free to write about whichever amendment spoke to them. That doubling-up often makes for a meaningful contrast. For instance, soul singer Bette Smith’s “13th Amendment” is a gospel-influenced shout that celebrates emancipation, while Detroit rapper Kash Doll’s take points out how much further we have to go: “We thought this would be the one that would end it / But we still harassed / Still mass incarcerations / So much for the Emancipation Proclamation.”
5. Joey Stylez, “1st Amendment”
The First Amendment guarantees Americans the right to the free exercise of religion, but as First Nations rapper Joey Stylez points out, Native Americans historically haven’t enjoyed that same protection. His track was inspired by the memory of the Ghost Dancers who, in the late 19th century, resisted white settlers’ encroachments through spiritual practice — and were massacred as a result. Over a sizzling trap beat, Stylez serves up a righteous indictment of that broken promise.
6. Devendra Banhart, “25th Amendment”
Perhaps those anonymous White House officials currently discussing the 25th Amendment behind closed doors might like to consider Devendra Banhart’s fanciful yarn of how — after a long chain of events involving monastic conversions, subway delays, and city-swallowing seismic events — the line of presidential succession landed on Banhart’s hapless narrator. (And then, perhaps, those White House officials should carry on discussing the 25th Amendment.)
7. The Mellow Tones, “23rd Amendment”
D.C. license plates still bear the ironic slogan “Taxation Without Representation,” but before the Twenty-third Amendment was ratified in 1961, D.C. residents couldn’t even cast a vote for president. This delightful track is courtesy of the Mellow Tones, a student jazz vocal group from D.C.’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts who also opened for Kendrick Lamar and the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center last year. Check out the accompanying video to see the students and their instructor-arranger, local jazz artist Mark G. Meadows, tearing it up in their classroom.
8. Torres, “5th Amendment”
Mackenzie Scott, better known to indie-rock lovers as Torres, opens her chilling contribution by invoking a man familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a conlaw class. “Dred Scott / Same name as me,” she intones, and we’re reminded instantly that while the Fifth Amendment purports to guarantee that no one shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” that very clause was once used to justify stealing away one man’s liberty to protect another’s supposed property. “This is the sand we built our house upon,” Torres sings over and over, doubling her guitar line for emphasis and forcing her listener to reckon with the darknesses written into the Constitution.