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Junk Mail: 'Empire' Season 1 Original Soundtrack Review

by Carolyn Menyes   Mar 10, 2015 18:05 PM EDT

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Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Kimberley Richards and Caitlin Carter chat about the soundtrack to the hit TV show Empire. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section, and check back next week for more.

Caitlin Carter: Welcome to this week's Junk Mail. This time around we are reviewing a soundtrack rather than a traditional album by a single artist. Fox's new series Empire has taken the world by storm, and part of its success is the original music it showcases. Helmed by Timbaland and producer/songwriter Jim Beanz, with vocals by the show's characters, the music acts as another storytelling outlet.

The show follows Empire Records founder Lucius Lyon and his sons, rapper Hakeem Lyon (Bryshere Gray), gay R&B singer Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett), and business man Andre Lyon (Trai Byers) as they battle for the the Empire throne with the help of their mother Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson).

Because these stories are a part of the lives of the characters, they appear in the songs as well. So for those who don't follow the show, the songs might feel a little cheesy. But you have to remember that this is a musical soap opera. So we have to ask ourselves, how do the songs stand up as part of a television show score and how do they stand up as a song that could have some commercial viable in its own right.

Carolyn Menyes: And the answer is: not well. I'm playing the part of the person who has never seen Empire, though I have seen about 500 commercials for it and the occasional opening scene after American Idol (because while I don't watch a popular musical show, I do watch one with waning relevance).

The first about 30 seconds of this album, Jussie Smolett's "Am I Good Enough" actually made me guffaw -- not only is the beatboxing soo Justin Timberlake 2002, but the lyrics are so clear. Even without seeing this show, I know Jussie's Jamal Lyon is trying to impress his father, whom he'll never be "good enough." The production similarly feels dated on this opening track. I don't want to necessarily diss Timbaland, but damn... does this show take place in modern day or like 10 years ago?

I'm not a huge musical fan in general, so the blatant lyrical content is pretty eyeroll worthy for me, on its own. I'm sure it's very engaging on TV.

Kimberely Richards: To Carolyn's point, I have watched Empire so it's hard for me to separate this album from the show. So for any cheesiness at first listen--I'm a little forgiving considering that it's following the soap opera's plot.

Even though I wouldn't say I'm the "biggest fan" of the show, lately something pulls me in to tune in each week--possibly to participate in conversations with my groups of friends?

I'm a major R&B girl, so I will say that I appreciated some of the strong vocals and ballads. I'm really feeling "What is Love," by V Bozeman. I can so see myself popping that song in on a long drive somewhere.

I'm big fans of Estelle, Mary J. Blige and Jennifer Hudson. So there appearances on the soundtrack scored some points for me.

CC: I have also been following Empire, and I'm definitely a fan. I also listened to the deluxe version, so I'll try to contain my comments to the standard edition. That said, I think the soundtrack has both commercially viable songs and ones that really only work within the context of the show. I definitely agree that the ballads are some of the stronger tracks. "What Is Love" was executed really well by V. Bozeman and the songs that featured Estelle, Mary J. Blige and Jennifer Hudson had strong vocal performances as well. I think in terms of vocal performance and production, a lot of these songs are pretty strong. The lyrical content is where I start dividing the good from the bad.

The songs that have strong lyrical content are those that are more universal than tied to the storyline. "What Is Love," "Can't Truss 'Em," "Conqueror," "Remember The Music," "Walk Out On Me," "Shake Down" make sense outside of the show whereas "Good Enough," "Power of the Empire," and "Keep it Moving" are more tied to the show.

Carolyn, were there any songs you liked? What were your thoughts on "Walk Out On Me?" as I know you are a Courtney Love fan. In the show, the song didn't seem that strong. However, listening to it outside the show, I think it's actually not that bad. Just sounds like a Courtney Love ballad.

CM: Really? I thought that the vocal performance in "What Is Love" was pretty strong, but it still sounded like a musical soundtrack song to me more than something you would actually hear on the radio. I can imagine hearing this song in like an early 2000s Brandy musical before hearing it on any modern urban radio station. It's the song during a love triangle or something, right? It has to be.

I think when people outside of the show are singing, that's when this soundtrack actually works. Jennifer Hudson's "Remember the Music" is still a little too straightforward in its lyrics, but her distinct voice and performance sells this as an independent track. Mary J. Blige and Estelle are pretty refereshing.

As for the Courtney Love song, I think it's pretty solid. I like some of the stuff she released last year more, but I don't hate this.

Of the R&B songs, there really aren't many I like. What bothers me the most other than the theatrical lyrics is just how DATED this all sounds. I'm not inherently an R&B fan, but I'm aware enough to know there's a huge '70s revival in the genre now and that the biggest songs right now (Rihanna's "FourFiveSeconds," Usher's "I Don't Mind") have a stripped down vibe to them. There's nothing like that on this album, so it just feels irrelevant.

KR: Ah, I definitely understand your comparison Carolyn. It's interesting because I think that's actually what makes me like the album. Speaking of Usher--I'd still listen to 8701 and enjoy it today, so perhaps I like that this album takes us to that R&B style we may not hear a lot of today.

Also, I appreciate the genuine talent. Jussie Smollett has a voice on him! I'm glad he landed a record deal outside of the show. I started really paying attention to him with his duet with Estelle for "Conqueror." Listening through the album, I enjoyed his voice on different tracks even though lyrically some of the songs were tied to the show's plot.

What did you all think of the musical talent of the cast on the album? Were you disappointed/pleasantly surprised?

CC: I understand your point, Carolyn. I definitely don't envision any of these songs landing on the today's charts with the production trends going the way they have been. If they were trying to be more in-tune with today's radio, they might've ripped off some DJ Mustard-style beats. However, that doesn't make them bad songs per se, it just makes them dated.

As far as musical talent, every single character delivers a hell of a vocal performance, regardless of the lyrics or production. Were there any songs for which you enjoyed the production? Any sick beats?

CM: I did not enjoy 90 percent of the production on this album. I guess that was my biggest beef with it, as I said. If I had to pick one I like, I think that "Keep It Movin'" is pretty infectious. The woman singer, Sarayah McNeil has a pretty weak performance, but I like Yazz's complimentary lines a lot. The tribal beat appeals to me more than anything else on this record.

As far as this album being dated, hey, I love Usher's "U Got It Bad as much as anyone else, but that doesn't mean that it still works for me as a NEW song in 2015. I guess as far as the fictional "Empire Records" goes... they won't last if they're making music like this. They're taking talented singers and making them sound like recycled Justified singers.

KR: For production, again, I think I'll point to "What is Love." I'm a fan of the build up. I like the soft vocals in the beginning of the song that leads to a more powerful finish in both the production and vocals. I guess it's pretty obvious I really like this track (lol).

CC: To your point Carolyn, I think the show could definitely benefit from modernizing its sound. I'm interested to see how the music evolves as the seasons progress. Maybe they could buy up cutting floor songs from today's artists. That said, I think that "No Apologies" sounds pretty modern and almost jacks a Soulja Boy flow. There's also a somewhat Pharrell-esque production on "Whatever Makes You Happy." Although it's only on the deluxe version, I also think "NY Raining" sounds pretty modern.

What are your thoughts on artists, such as Jussie Smollett (who was just signed to Columbia), making a music career outside of the show?

CM: Haha, it's OK to like "What is Love." Despite the dramatics, I think that the vocal is so strong. Caitlin and I briedly discussed in office that that song would easily find home on an R&B album, though it would never be a wise single. But, it's strong enough to make the cut!

It's a little early to say as far as the star power on this show, but I have a hard time not comparing these people to Glee artists. Now, forgive me if any of these people are well known because besides Terrance Howard, I have no idea who any of the actors on this show are. But, back to my point... Lea Michele and Naya Rivera both got record deals, and they never really went anywhere.

The soundtrack to Empire and the show in general is a little different because it features so many guest stars. I really just need to hear what these guys are doing away from the show to judge. Because on record, Smollett just sounds like off-brand Usher -- which isn't bad. It's just the production and the beats mixed with his already very Usher-y voice.

KR: I agree that it may be early to tell. At this point, I think Smollett has a pretty good chance for a successful career outside of the show. He has a nice presence, attractive and just crazy talented.

In my opinion, his style on the album at times sounds more Pop than R&B (his feature on "No Apologies" for an example) and vice versa. I'm interested to see what his exact style will be in his music career. I'm leaning towards success!

FINAL THOUGHTS:

CC: The Empire Original Soundtrack works great as a soundtrack to a musical soap opera. Outside of the show's context, most of the songs wouldn't have much commercial viability in today's market. So the show could definitely benefit from following current production trends in today's mainstream. The songs that are able to stand on their own usually don't blatantly follow the show's storyline. However, the vocal performances shine through on each song, proving that these cast members have a lot of musical talent.

CM: Empire is probably a fine show. Lord knows it's popular and only gaining in viewers every week, which is incredibly impressive for a debut. But, on its own, the music just cannot hold up. Dated beats, cheesy and obvious lyrics and cast singing that gets overshadowed by guest spots mean that outside of its context, the music is pretty bleh. Maybe if I watch the show (which I plan to do eventually), these songs will resonate with me more. But, until then, I'm not interested.

KR: There are definitely gems on the Empire soundtrack. The R&B heavy songs with strong ballads really stand out. Some of the songs are heavily connected to the context of the show so it's hard to connect to them separately. The raw musical talent of the cast is impressive.

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