In just one short season, this FOX soap has become America’s #2 scripted drama, with over 16.5 million “live watch” viewers by the drama’s season finale, nipping at the heels of the top dog status of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Its name is Empire and it has rapidly become one of America’s guiltiest pleasure pastimes. Integral to the storylines of this soap opera about a family run record label are R&B, pop, and hip hop songs that either comment on the story’s action or moves the story forward, with an occasional big name one-off just to give the show authenticity (courtesy of various veteran hitmakers rolling through to visit The Lyons family, from Mary J. Blige and Jennifer Hudson to Courtney Love and Patti Labelle). The show’s weekly music drops on iTunes have been released by Columbia Records as EPs just before every episode.
In just one short season, this FOX soap has become America’s #2 scripted drama, with over 16.5 million “live watch” viewers by the drama’s season finale, nipping at the heels of the top dog status of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Its name is Empire and it has rapidly become one of America’s guiltiest pleasure pastimes. Integral to the storylines of this soap opera about a family run record label are R&B, pop, and hip hop songs that either comment on the story’s action or moves the story forward, with an occasional big name one-off just to give the show authenticity (courtesy of various veteran hitmakers rolling through to visit The Lyons family, from Mary J. Blige and Jennifer Hudson to Courtney Love and Patti Labelle). The show’s weekly music drops on iTunes have been released by Columbia Records as EPs just before every episode. With über-producer Timbaland supervising the show’s music and co-writing and producing the bulk of the songs, there is a fairly consistent feel to material that has a definite bridge to the club banger and anthemic urban hits of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, yet the material still feels largely fresh and contemporary. The main question is whether songs that work as integral parts of the show’s storytelling work as well as legitimate R&B, pop, and hip hop hits in the real world?
From a commercial standpoint, this project is already a success - partially answering that question - opening at #1 on the Billboard 200, Billboard Hot R&B & Hip Hop, and Billboard Soundtrack charts, and selling well over a 120K records its first week. One of the main cuts from the album, the effective inspirational anthem, “Conqueror,” featuring Jussie Smollett and UK pop star Estelle, was #1 on iTunes the night it aired on the show. Other, shall we say, more novelty songs have also already entered the cultural imagination, as in the case of the ridiculously suggestive “Drip Drop (featuring Yazz and Serayah),” becoming something of a punchline in general convo for those in the know.
Artistically, the songs work as fun hip-hop soul, most of it feeling cut short with running times for the average song coming in at about three minutes, sometimes even just shy of that, like V. Boseman’s standout ballad “What is Love” from the show pilot. Delivering an emotional powerhouse of a performance, Boseman is a belter best known for her duet with Timothy Bloom, “’Til The End of Time,” who nicely asks one of the questions for the ages.
Playing the sons Jamal and Hakeem, respectively, on the show, Jussie Smollett, a trill heavy, melismatic tenor in the vein of Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake, and Yazz, a light, sly-voiced young rapper in the tradition of Fabolous and Mase, perform the bulk of the material on this cast album. How much you enjoy the project heavily depends on how much you like or believe these two promising artists. Both are pleasant enough as pop stars performing quality urban fare that you can tap your foot and bob your head to, though neither so far has demonstrated vast vocal or creative range. Having recently been signed as a solo artist to Columbia Records, Smollett will have a chance to demonstrate whether he is the real deal outside of Timbaland’s hip hop soul confections. An emotive, heart-on-his-sleeve crooner, Smollett is most effective on the album’s message to Daddy songs like “Good Enough,” “No Apologies” and “Money for Nothing,” cuts all bearing Timbaland’s trademark percussive sound and vocal effects, accompanied by lyrics meant to reveal the tensions between men’s vulnerabilities and puff-chested bravado. Meanwhile Yazz is at his best as a hype man and duet rapper, like with Serayah McNeil’s (Tiana) “Keep It Movin’” a fast-moving sing-talk cut that owes a bit of a debt to Aaliyah and Ciara in its sweet aggression. More forgettable are Yazz’s two anemic braggadocio solo cuts, “Can’t Truss ‘Em” and “Power of the Empire,” cuts that demonstrate that Yazz’s thin wordplay and mediocre flow is no Jay-Z or even Memphis Bleek for that matter.
The star turns on this cast album are limited to Courtney Love’s bluesy turn, a surprisingly effective Rita Orr/Charles Hamilton duet, a surprisingly ineffective duet between Terrence Howard and Mary J. Blige, and Jennifer Hudson’s two R&B performances from the show, leaving out her gospel spotlight in the series. On “Remember The Music” and “Whatever Makes You Happy (featuring Juicy J),” JHud comes across like a cannonball, overpowering the delicate lyrics of the first song and shrill and sharp on the second. Both songs are infectious cuts, but the lack of finesse Hudson displays in her approach to the material detracts from what the material could be, making them songs to be endured rather than enjoyed. Love is sublime with her best Janis Joplin impression on the blues-tinged rock of “Walk Out On Me,” a cut that could’ve been in the ballad-laden third act of Rocky Horror Picture Show. The poor man’s Rihanna that has been Rita Orr takes it up a notch as the hook girl on “NY Raining,” with the consistently compelling rapper, Charles Hamilton, leading the charge on the kind of East Coast rap jam that was once the standard. The less said about the Blige and Howard ballad, “Shake Down,” the better (but, seriously, stop trying to make “Terrence Howard: Vocalist” happen).
Interestingly, some of the show’s standout performances are missing from even this deluxe edition set, including: Patti Labelle’s duet with Smollett, Gladys Knight’s funeral dirge, a Latin flavored “father-son” duet between Jussie Smollett and Terrence Howard (“Nothing to Lose”), and Smollett’s solo version of “You’re So Beautiful,” a song performed on the show in so many different iterations, it’s practically a theme song on the show. The duet version by Smollett and Yazz that’s present is a fine example of what works best on the show: frothy soul pop confections with strong melodies, just enough edge to be taken seriously, and a universal message palatable to millions of listeners and show followers dedicated to this musical soap. When it understands its lane and stays there, everybody wins. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson