The third episode of Fox's wildly popular new hip-hop drama Empire featured Gladys Knight—given no introduction, or even a fictional name, though maybe she's supposed to be playing herself—singing at the funeral of a character killed off in the pilot after less than five minutes of screen time. Most shows would provide some context for such a gaudy music-legend cameo, but not this one: Instead, as Gladys wails, we simply watch Terrance Howard, in his role as Empire Records CEO Lucious Lyon, stewing and seething and generally projecting a paranoid mix of Jay Z and Diddy. Amazing.
The show, created by Lee Daniels (director of Precious and The Butler) and Danny Strong, is a family-dynasty soap-opera sorta deal, wherein Lucious butts heads with his fresh-out-of-jail former business partner and lover Cookie, played with scenery-chewing aplomb by Taraji P. Henson; their rivalry sweeps up their three sons, Hakeem (think Diggy Simmons), Jamal (think Frank Ocean), and the business-minded Andre (think Stringer Bell), who excitedly waits for his family to crumble around him so he can rise to power. Also, in the first few episodes, a gay child is stuff in a trash can, one character is killed in cold blood, another is revealed to have ALS, another is bi-polar, and there's a diner drive-by, plus an elevator fight whose inspiration you can probably guess.
The usual batshit drama and family squabbles take up most of the screen time—and Henson easily out-acts everyone—but music is theoretically the show's primary focus. Every episode features multiple scenes of professional or personal recording sessions; following the model of Fox's Glee and ABC's Nashville, all that original music is available for purchase on iTunes and such, just in case you fall in love with Hakeem's Tyga-lite track "Right There." Which means Fox needed a real-life musician who could crank out hits that made sense in both the show's universe and, well, ours.
They got Timbaland. Which, on the one hand, is great—he is, after all, behind some of the greatest pop songs of our time, whether they're delivered by Aaliyah, Justin Timberlake, Jay Z, or Super Bowl MVP Missy Elliott. But sadly, based on Empire's first four episodes, this new music isn't living up to that legacy. The second episode features the two brothers Hakeem and Jamal performing a song called "No Apologies" at a major concert, but it sounds five years out of date, with Hakeem's verse aping "Like a sprained ankle / Boy, I ain't nothing to play with"-era Drake and Jamal blandly filling the role of Faceless Male R&B Vocalist No. 38. The show had built the scene and the song alike as a triumphant familial moment after much internal strife, but no one got the memo that this show is set in 2015, not 2009.
Meanwhile, Lucious Lyon's hip-hop-mogul lifestyle projects a glamour better fit for 1997 than 2015; nowadays, all the biggest rap stars' videos are made on shoestring budgets and major labels are usually stuck playing catch-up to the kids. Which might explain why one of Empire's best in-show tracks is "What the DJ Spins," an old club hit from back when Lucious was apparently a superstar artist himself—it sounds like a DMX or Ja Rule hit circa 2000, which, coincidentally, was when Timbaland was at his own creative peak. But too many of the allegedly modern hits on this show come off like leftovers from JT's The 20/20 Experience or Rihanna's Good Girl Gone Bad. Thus, when a contemporary musical trope like the "Migos Flow" sneaks in—or when Hakeem uses the word thot—it's double-take-worthy in the wrong way, as though the show is a period piece with intermittent flashes back to the present day, like a reverse LOST flashback or something.
Empire is still young, of course—and it's one of the biggest new hits in years—so the musical direction can go anywhere from here. Though hiring a big-name producer might've helped with the initial promo push, there's no need for that now, or at least no need for Timbaland to try his shaky hand at unfamiliar styles on songs meant to serve as the dramatic climaxes for a show with 11 million viewers. It'll be interesting to see how (or even if) the show chooses to tackle less glossy (and more current) rap and R&B going forward: Maybe even give Ty$ or Young Thug a call for the next season. The show is about the modern-day record industry, after all. It's time to act like it.
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