Original Soundtrack From Season 1 of Empire
Lucious Lyon looks, acts, and sings like a heavily mentholated cat daddy. Hakeem is a struggle rapper with fashionably generic sensibilities, down to the overly stylized eyebrow. Courtney Love, bless her heart, can't even sing.
How does any of this work as well as Empire somehow does?
Empire, suddenly the most popular show on television, is a melodramatic musical about rap label shenanigans at the titular Empire Records, founded by hip-hop mogul Lucious Lyon and his ex-wife, Cookie. While critics have speculated that Empire is (ahem) an inspired tribute to the industrial accomplishments of Puffy and/or Jay Z, Lucious Lyon's own solo output is a raspy mash of Nelly, Z-Ro, Jaheim, and Lil Wayne; he raps, he sings, he mostly just slurs. (Apart from his performance on Empire, in his spare time, Terrence Howard does a challenging Sting impersonation.)
As Lucious' untested heirs, youngest son Hakeem is a fledgling Kid Ink or Iggy Azalea, whereas truly gifted middle brother Jamal attempts to sing like Usher. (Oldest brother Andre, a Wharton grad, is Empire's prim and thankless CFO.) When various internal rivalries pit Hakeem's rap single "Drip Drop" vs. Jamal's R&B slapper "Keep Your Money," both songs strike a balance between parodying radio play, and attempting it.
Empire's music is ridiculous, of course; a soundtrack of Faustian scheming, bickering among divorcees, and personas destined for a Mona Scott-Young project on VH1. Timbaland is credited as one of Empire's executive producers, and a few of these tracks ("Keep It Movin'," "I Wanna Love You," "Good Enough") do indeed pass, approximately, for Timbaland/Timberlake-era hits. Very few, I should say. Hakeem's music, in particular, is fashioned as the sort of mass-market appeal that snobs tend to resent as low-brow and anonymous, so it's hilarious when he explicitly compares himself to Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and J. Cole.
"You're So Beautiful" aside, most of these songs aren't realistically bound for the Hot 100. "Money for Nothing," which pairs Jamal and Hakeem together for a rock-rap-R&B triple-threat to wow potential investors, opens with Jamal singing, "I want my MTV," and then belting about "microwave ovens" and "refrigerators," as if he were hyping a Maytag conference. In its fullest presentation—dry ice, catwalk, models, and all—"Money for Nothing" also represents the show's most grating musical instincts: flat and flashy genre tropes, gutless production of the plot's most crucial songs, and lyrics that stupefy (rather than mimic) popular taste. While "Can't Truss Em" is conceptually indebted to Chris Brown's 2013 hit, "Loyal," the sound and Hakeem's delivery are rather traceable to T.I.'s King, which dropped in 2006.
So: The rap songs are dated and goofy as hell, but occasionally they're catchy enough. Luckily, Empire keeps a few true R&B greats on call for the love of musicality. (Also, Courtney Love, whose comeback single is boozy, love-struck, and winded by her character's design.) Most of the stars featured on the OST cameo throughout the TV series; singer Delphine, played by singer Estelle, drops by Empire's offices for an impromptu duet session with Jamal, for instance, and so we, the audience, are treated to a few minutes of truly powerful singing. Empire's R&B moments tend to overpower the show's association with rap, which explains, perhaps, why the official soundtrack is edited in favor of the singers. The unfortunate consequence of all these talent disparities, however, is Mary J. Blige's being roped into "Shake Down," a duet with Terrence Howard, to loud, clamorous, and disastrously atonal effect.
Of the soundtrack's eighteen songs, only two allow the guest stars to perform without assistance from the Empire cast; Charles Hamilton and Rita Ora make for a jaunty pop-crossover on "NY Raining," whereas Jennifer Hudson and Juicy J and mismatched and miscast on "Whatever Makes You Happy," in which Hudson is presumably telegraphing the sass and wrath of Cookie. Somehow, despite the presence of Hudson and Blige, Jussie Smollett (as Jamal) is the strongest singer on this project.
Note that this official release has shed many of Empire's cheesiest, marginal cuts ("What the DJ Spins," "Hustle Hard"), instead balancing true promo singles ("Conqueror," "NY Raining") with viral plot fodder ("Drip Drop," "You're So Beautiful"). From a show whose grasp of rap as a business is much stronger than its grasp of rap as contemporary music, Empire's soundtrack is a best-of-the-worst compilation. A thrilling ensemble drama about music that's frequently awful; buyer beware.