Why the Empire Soundtrack Reached No. 1

The soundtrack to the hit television show Empire reached the top of the Billboard 200 this week, which apparently is the first time a record of original music for a network show has achieved the feat in 20 years (Somewhere Jan Hammer is crying on his keyboard, since Miami Vice was the last soundtrack to accomplish this.). While it might seem easy nowadays when you consider how much record sales have declined overall, it further proves how much the show has become a cultural touchstone when there is so much quality television vying for the eyes of the American public.

Empire is one of the few shows to actually increase viewers from the first episode to the second. Why does it resonate so well with the public? One reason might be that it's a retelling of Shakespeare tragedy King Lear, a story that has resonated for centuries, through the lens of the crazy, sexy, cutthroat world of hip-hop. The show's controversial, timely topics include how white America links violence to rap lyrics, the real state of race relations, homophobia in hip-hop, and separating the quality of art from the person performing it (In an early episode, one rapper goes on a drunken rant and, in a Kanye West moment, calls President Obama a "sellout."). It's also melodramatic, anchored in the acting of Taraji P. Henson, who plays the ex-con Cookie, the former wife of mogul Lucious Lyon, played by Terrence Howard. Henson and Howard's chemistry recalls the dynamic they shared while creating music about the difficulties of pimpin' in 2005's Hustle and Flow, but now Howard's Empire character Lyon has become too wrapped up in the game, forgetting what inspired him in the first place.

This show was practically built for an original soundtrack, and by enlisting Timbaland as executive music producer, viewers were guaranteed to hear something new and fresh. Timbaland is actually going back to the genre that he helped build instead of producing pop music for Justin Timberlake. As evidenced by the world's reaction to Missy Elliot's brief appearance at the Super Bowl halftime show, listeners are hungry for what he was able to create when he joined forces with Elliot, Jay-Z, and Ginuwine.

With Empire, the public is able to consume something new that Timbaland produces every week with his team, which includes Jim Beanz and Raphael Saadiq, and download it after the show. It's performed with gusto by a cast of young actors and musicians who are finally being discovered. Who knew that Bryshere Y. Gray, who once opened for 2 Chainz as Yazz The Greatest, would perform the song "No Apologies" with such passion and swagger? Then there's "Drip Drop," the infectious party single Gray performs that feels like a hip-hop parody, but is too much fun for anyone to care. Snoop Dogg and Jennifer Hudson guest star, but since the show is very relevant, the fictional label can't operate in a bubble.

Using a television show to sell music is far from a new concept. There is The Monkees and The Partridge Family. Beverly Hills 90210 used the Peach Pit to sell a soundtrack. The Heights was about the struggles of a early '90s band trying to make it in California. Once Fox realized people were watching The O.C. for the music, The Killers and Modest Mouse started making appearances in Orange County at The Bait Shop, a venue that the writers created in the show's second season to sell six soundtracks and let go of any authenticity they might have had trying to depict the struggles of teenagers in upper-class America. Glee introduced the sales model that Empire uses. By directing viewers to iTunes after New Directions belted out another Journey cover, a new revenue stream for TV was born.

With Empire, no one is belting out songs in a big singing and dancing musical production. Not every episode has a big number at the end. The songs feel like part of the story, giving the soundtrack a feeling of legitimacy in a show that actually has characters that struggle in finding that very feeling in themselves. Viewers care about the characters on Empire, and listeners want to hear to what Timbaland and his team think they would create. The music is heard on television, but if producers stick to their guns in Empire's second season, it's going to be playing for a long time after the show is over.

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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil