Empire: Is it a musical success?
By Madhura Anandarajah
Empire is an American TV show that has recently completed its first season, rumoured to return with its second season in September. Music being at the heart of the show, it has gained itself a happy spot within the charts
The music is completely original and produced by Timbaland, a name we will all recognize. While absent from the news lately, he has an impressive track record having previously worked with a long list of credible artists including Missy Elliot, Madonna and Justin Timberlake. The soundtrack was released by Columbia Records (a successful American label owned by Sony Music Entertainment) and has had great success in sales which has hit nearly 400,000 copies in the United States alone.
The series itself is a modern representation of an accomplished billionaire who struggled to survive the lifestyle that the ghetto presented but through his (and his then current wife’s) musical talents were able to build a capitalistic ‘Empire’ of his own, starting and ending with a Music label. The focus of the series is the process the three sons face in order to be deemed the most suitable successor to Empire and throughout all this many social hot topics are tackled. Naturally race and poverty come to the forefront of the show but not second to homophobia, mental health and sexism which are essentially what the songs elaborate on. By doing so it increases the awareness of the character’s emotional responses to their individual struggles as opposed to using a first person narrative.
The songs are good, some are better than good when realized within the context of the story. Knowing the exact story behind a lyric allows a greater identification of the characters by the audience and the series takes advantage of this endlessly. This can be taken out of a TV show into a real life situation; the ever-obsessive fascination to which boy toy Taylor Swift may be referring to in her songs is a past time for the media and the people. Having someone in mind, a story behind the words makes it that much more ‘real’ and is an undeniable factor behind the success of the soundtrack.
So which songs earn the most from the context provided by the plot and therefore work more than it would have done on its own in the charts? Jussie Smollet takes the best songs home including ‘beautiful’ all the more powerful as the song was used as a tool to come out to the public (within the show). Anyone listening to the song will remember this epic moment within the series and will forever more associate it with this climax. Then you have ‘Good enough’, related to the struggles of pleasing his often cruel father who refuses his son’s sexual orientation, once again the lyrics thickened by an external plotline. The song itself is average in quality, lyrically honest but still sub-standard and vocally perhaps most satisfying if the auto-tuned was tuned out.
Are there any songs that can hold themselves up without a rich back story? Arguably ‘What the DJ says’ has a much more convincing sound than the previously released songs including ‘Drip Drop’ by Yazz which frankly is catchy that is all it has to offer. To date I’d venture out and say the greatest hits released within Empire would be those of the guest-stars appearing including of course Jennifer Hudson, Estelle and Courtney Cox. Personally, ‘Conqueror’, a duet by Estelle and Jussie Smollet (who depicts Jamal Lyon) rates highly in terms of simple quality of music and removing context. While a big name may have produced the songs, it does not automatically guarantee quality but ultimately, Empire is a TV show and has achieved great ratings and as Lee Daniels (producer) so elegantly puts it; ‘the story drives the music, the music doesn’t drive the story’.
Do I recommend Empire? Yes, tackling social issues the way it has been done is fascinating to watch but musically? I am more inclined to expect one-off hits that may hit the right mark rather than a fully solid quality album. Thus far the songs have greatly depended on the story and quality-wise are lacking on their own, perhaps we will see something better versed for season 2.
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