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Music on TV: The Empire Era

Music on TV: The Empire Era

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Empire returns for a second season on September 23, and this time, the world is ready. The soapy drama that evokes Shakespeare’s King Lear (or maybe The Godfather) in its portrait of a hip-hop overlord, his bitter ex-wife and his three wayward sons caught us all by surprise when it debuted on January 7, 2015. As the 12-episode season increased in viewership with each airing, peaking with a March 18 finale seen by 17 million people, Empire turned into the kind of watercooler hit that people simply couldn’t avoid. Even the Empire soundtrack, which featured songs recorded by the actors themselves, debuted at No. 1 on the charts.

As The New York Times and others pointed out, much of Empire’s appeal lay in its nostalgia for late ‘90s/early 2000s “bling” rap and R&B, when monarchs such as Jay Z, Beyoncé, Pharrell Williams and Puff Daddy rose to power. The show’s inherent gaudiness appears removed from the music industry’s current, piracy-impaired existence. (Though, believe it or not, record companies still make a lot of money.)

Just as integral are its finely drawn characters. There’s Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), the arrogant street hustler turned label mogul, a fiction drawn by Birdman and many other drug-dealer-gone-legit storybook tales. There’s Loretha “Cookie” Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), the bitter ex-wife who financed Empire Entertainment, served as its first A&R rep, and then took the fall for the couple’s illegal business so the company could survive. After a 17-year stint in prison, Cookie gets her Alexis Carrington on and manipulates her three sons against Lucious. There’s Jamal (Jussie Smollett, who shines brightest among the cast of brothers), the R&B songwriter whom Lucious shuns because he's gay; Hakeem (Bryshere “Yazz the Great” Gray), the swaggy rap brat who thinks he’s Drake but is more like Kid Ink; and Andre (Trai Byers), the boring suit-and-tie business executive who suffers from a bipolar disorder. As the drama unfolds, Lucious and Cookie battle like hell. But as last season’s viewers know, they just can’t stay away.

Timbaland, one of the czars from the “bling” years, oversees the Empire soundtrack. He produced a collection of tracks recorded by Hakeem, Jamal, and recurring characters such as V Bozeman, Serayah McNeill and, yes, Courtney Love. Sprinkled amidst the cast’s numbers were songs that inspired the showrunners, like Drake’s "0 to 100/The Catch Up," Wiz Khalifa's "We Dem Boyz" and, delightfully, Big Cynthia's "She Working That Nookie Thang," which has become a calling card for the flamboyant Miss Cookie.

To prepare for the September 23 Season 2 premiere, we’ve included many of the sounds heard on Season 1 as well as early previews from the new season, such as "No Doubt About It," which pairs Jamal with Pitbull, and "Ain’t About the Money," a duet between Jamal and Hakeem. And if you're in the mood, you can listen to Lucious screeching “What the DJ Spins.”

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