'Empire' aims to climb music charts as well as TV rankings

Timbaland and Jim Beanz oversee the songs. Pop royalty peppers recordings. 'Empire' is on the rise

On a recent afternoon at a Burbank rehearsal studio, Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Y. 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 standout tunes, "You're So Beautiful."

"My Beyoncé fan is messing up your makeup," Smollett said 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 television success translate to the real-life world of music?

Fox has tried crossovers before, having set the bar with the high-school vocal pop of 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 television performances and a radio promo tour in support of a compilation soundtrack that features the show's best numbers. The soundtrack, released Tuesday, also boasts appearances from a range of pop heavyweights, including Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Hudson, Courtney Love, Estelle and Juicy J.

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," Smollett, 31, said, "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 itself a game changer. Conceptualized 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 P. 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 series 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," said Smollett, who plays Jamal, a talented singer-songwriter 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," said 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 said). Beanz, who also appears on the series as gangster rapper Titan, then flies to the show's Chicago set to record cast members.

"It's a quick turnaround," songwriter-producer Justin Bostwick added. "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 No. 1 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 catalog of songs just passed 1 million downloads, according to Columbia.

"Certainly making original songs for every episode was going to be a unique challenge," said 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 added. "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 make a splash, 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 said. "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 are talks of a tour, although producers said that's not likely until after Season 2, 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 protégé 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 currently 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," said Shawn Holiday, Columbia's senior vice president of artists and repertoire. "But these are still brand-new songs by brand-new artists. People are going to question, 'Why should I be buying this?' So we had to make it the best story line 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% has been such beautiful responses. I get such incredible letters from young LGBT youth and also heterosexual youth who say the show made them understand and open their mind," Smollett said. "It's overwhelming in the most beautiful way."

For the show's second season, which is expected to have a larger episode order, Fox and Columbia plan to recruit additional songwriters and producers to keep up with the show's 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 said. "It's exciting because it's bringing a new form of exposure to the business. 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," Bywater continued. "But it's like a hit record. And 'Empire' is doing exactly what a hit record does — it keeps climbing the charts." 



Where: Fox

When: 9:01 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times