Empire - hit TV series sets out to conquer music industry

Show's creators hope its success on TV turns its stars into viable musical artists

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 March, 2015, 10:57pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 March, 2015, 10:57pm


On a recent afternoon at a Burbank rehearsal studio, Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Gray, two of the breakout stars of Fox's soapy hip-hop musical Empire, joked their way through a photo shoot while a band in the room next door worked through an arrangement of one of the show's stand-out tunes, You're So Beautiful.

"My Beyoncé fan is messing up your make-up," Smollett says to the woman fussing over his face, sending the two into giggles.

Packed with drama, go-for-broke camp and original music, Empire has become one of the early hits of 2015 - and has the social media buzz to match its high ratings, which have continued to grow over eight consecutive weeks.

But can the show's success translate to the real-life world of music?

Fox has tried crossovers before, having set the bar with the high-school vocal pop confection Glee. But despite a number of scripted music-driven shows finding chart success - Glee, NBC's short-lived Broadway drama Smash, ABC's Nashville - the genre has yet to prove it can turn its stars into viable recording artists.

For Empire, Fox is following a model similar to that of Glee. The network partnered with Columbia Records to release the music after each episode. The label also signed Smollett and Gray to solo deals.

At the Burbank space, the two were preparing for upcoming TV performances and a radio promotion tour in support of a compilation soundtrack which has now topped the US album charts. Released earlier this month, it also boasts appearances from a range of pop heavyweights, including Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Hudson, Courtney Love, Estelle and Juicy J.

People are connecting with the music and the characters

Smollett, a former child star (The Mighty Ducks, ABC's On Our Own), released an EP in 2012, and Gray has been rapping since he was a teenager in West Philadelphia, under the stage name Yazz the Greatest. Their roles on Empire as musically inclined brothers have yielded a number of radio-worthy tunes overseen by producer Timbaland - whose litany of hits includes Missy Elliott, Aaliyah, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z - and partner Jim Beanz.

"I was recording my album in a home studio off of Fairfax," says Smollett, 31, "and then four weeks later I'm at the Hit Factory with Timbaland and Jim Beanz. It's a dream. I keep saying it's the most beautiful exhaustion of my life. Everything I wanted in my career is somehow mixed up in this gumbo pot of Empire."

Empire has proved to be a game changer. Conceptualised by Lee Daniels ( Precious) and writing partner Danny Strong ( The Butler) as a hip-hop version of The Lion in Winter, the series follows an ailing former gangster rapper turned mogul (Terrence Howard), his ex-con wife (Taraji Henson) and their three rival sons. Amid the campy drama and flashy musical numbers, Empire tackles rarely explored terrain such as homophobia, mental illness and race - and viewers can't get enough.

Since it premiered in January, the show is the top-rated new series in the highly coveted 18-49 demographic and is TV's fastest-growing new drama since Fox's medical hit House more than a decade ago. The show was greenlit for a sophomore season after its second episode.

"Lee Daniels and Danny Strong have been able to so precisely mix the glitz and the glamour of an old-school musical with the drama and soapiness of Dynasty and the truth of what's happening in our society right now in this moment. And it's brilliant," says Smollett, who plays Jamal, a talented singer-songwriter who is overlooked by his father because he's gay. "On top of it, the music is so legit. People see all of that."

Creating the original music for Empire was a breakneck process, according to producers. "Timbaland and I went into the process thinking we would do the songs and they would write around them," says Beanz, who was born James David Washington. "The timeline … it trains you for war. You have maybe a day to get the song written and produced, even for a rough draft."

One of the show's writers usually offers songwriters an overview of what each song should cover. Philadelphia-based Beanz writes and records demo versions of the tracks before sending them to Timbaland for approval. The music is then sent to the network and the label ("They make sure it doesn't give away too much of the storyline or plot," Beanz says). Beanz, who also appears on the series as gangster rapper Titan, then flies to the show's Chicago set to record the cast members.

"It's a quick turnaround," says songwriter-producer Justin Bostwick. "Knowing minimal details and hoping that it turned out."

A number of tracks have garnered buzz. Drip Drop spawned memes; You're So Beautiful scored a powerful coming-out scene; Estelle's ballad Conqueror rocketed to No1 on iTunes' hip-hop/rap chart after it aired; and Smollett's searing anthem Good Enough has the potential to become a radio hit with 40 stations already playing the track. And the show's catalogue of songs has just passed a million downloads, according to Columbia.

"Certainly making original songs for every episode was going to be a unique challenge," says Geoff Bywater, Fox's head of music. "But because we are doing original music, we are really allowed to use the music in all avenues of promotion - and that's what's really exciting about it."

"The writers were smart when they decided they wanted two of the leads to be musically talented," Gray says. "It brings a dynamic, and people are connecting with the music and the characters."

Expect to hear more of Empire's music, especially after the season ends. Conqueror and You're So Beautiful will follow Good Enough to radio stations, and the soundtrack is likely to find further success, having been a fixture on the iTunes albums chart on the strength of presales. "The music is really starting to make its connection now with the audience," Bywater says. "The thing that was so gratifying for me was putting [Smollett and Gray] in a room with a live band and saying, 'Wow, these guys are really going to impress people.' They are performers."

There is talk of a tour, although producers say that's not likely until after season two, which is also when solo albums from Smollett and Gray are expected. And they aren't the only ones hoping to use Empire to jump-start their music careers.

Timbaland also brought his protege V. Bozeman to the series, and she plans to launch her debut project on the heels of her recurring role. Serayah McNeill, who plays fiery pop-R&B singer Tiana Brown, is also recording.

Aside from emerging acts, the series is also boosting established ones. Love had a memorable turn as a washed-up rock star, and Blige and Hudson perform in the remaining episodes. Snoop Dogg plans to use his appearance as himself to debut his new single, Peaches N Cream.

"It's a great platform to premiere a new single in front of 15 million people, which you can't always do," says Shawn Holiday, Columbia's senior vice-president of artists and repertoire. "But these are still new songs by new artists. People are going to question, 'Why should I be buying this?' So we had to make it the best storyline to sell the music."

Success aside, Empire has weathered controversy. Critics have skewered everything from the show's portrayal of the rap industry and its attempt to tackle serious issues to its music. Smollett admits he's received backlash because of his character. "But 99.99 per cent has been such beautiful responses," Smollett says. "I get such incredible letters from young LGBT youth and also heterosexual youth who say the show made them understand and open their mind."

For the show's second season, which is expected to have a larger episode order, Fox and Columbia plan to recruit more songwriters and producers to keep up with the musical demands. "There is going to be a bigger demand. Every writer, producer and urban artist is going to want to be a part of it," Bywater says.

"But it's going to be a little easier because we aren't talking about something that no one knows about. It's confounding people that every week it's growing in audience. But it's like a hit record. And Empire is doing exactly what a hit record does - it keeps climbing the charts."

Tribune News Service