Like “New York Undercover,” It’s The Music That Makes “Empire” A Hit

March 25, 2015  |  

There has been a lot of talk as of late when it comes to what is troubling about Empire, but let’s talk for a second about what makes the series such a hit.

For one, there’s Lee Daniels.

It’s true that Daniels is a very polarizing figure. And it’s also true that his politics are a little (make that a lot) suspect. But Daniels is also a very brave director who isn’t scared to push boundaries within his work. And you have to give him credit for not being scared to go there, even in spite of criticism, particularly from those within the Black community who are highly protective of our image (and rightfully so). Although I wasn’t a huge fan of Precious and found it to even be a bit perverse and twisted, I would be lying if I said that the film wasn’t entertaining. That is the thing about Daniels: if you don’t read too much into him or his work (and if he doesn’t try to take himself too seriously), you can just have a good time with it.

This boundary-pushing style is a central part of what makes Empire work. The first season, which wrapped last week, didn’t give viewers time to catch their breath before dropping one bomb after another on them. Even Sherlock Holmes couldn’t figure out where Daniels was going with the plot (and trust, many of us tried in vain to figure it out).

But outside of Daniels knowing how to deliver envelope-pushing plots, Empire is all about pop culture. The series is full of secret nods to pop culture references of the past that may have inspired the series.

For instance, there’s the Kehinde Wiley paintings in Lucious’ mansion. They’re mostly depictions of young Black men in contemporary gear posed as European royalty, military leaders and other noblemen and women. I’m not trying to get all deep here, but clearly that’s a hat tip to the show’s Shakespearean inspiration. And then there is Jamal’s ex-wife, Olivia, played by Raven-Symoné. The character has the same exact name as the character Symoné portrayed on The Cosby Show. And then there is Cookie and Luscious, who truly aren’t anything more than a reworked version of DJay and Shug from Hustle & Flow. Oh, and how can we forget about Malik Yoba?

Aside from playing the conniving (and now dead) Vernon Turner on Empire, Yoba also starred in another popular Fox drama: New York Undercover. He played J.C. Williams, an undercover detective in New York City’s 4th Precinct who was assigned to investigate various crimes and gang-related cases.

Last year marked the 20th anniversary of that show. As far as I know, both shows have no direct connection, other than being on Fox and including Yoba; but clearly Daniels has taken a few pages out of the urban drama’s handbook. For those too young to remember, New York Undercover was the hip-hop equivalent of Law & Order. In fact, the individual behind the popular show was Law & Order creator and producer Dick Wolf.

In spite of having different themes (Empire is about a family-owned record company while New York Undercover was a police drama), there are some striking similarities in how both shows went about appealing to viewers; in particular, through the use of hip-hop music and famous guest stars.

Just as Empire has Timbaland, New York Undercover used to have its own popular music director: James Mtume. The music legend has written and produced hits for the likes of Mary J. Blige, Roberta Flack, and Donnie Hathaway, and was in the group Mtume. The producer not only made sure to fill each episode with hip-hop and R&B songs that were popular at the time, but artists like Boyz II Men, Chaka Khan, New Edition and The Notorious B.I.G. appeared on the series. These stars performed during the final scenes at Natalie’s, which was a fictional bar owned by Gladys Knight (who also appeared on early episodes of the hit series). The combination of music and guest appearances, along with a halfway decent plot, made the series a top hit among black households.

Season one of Empire has followed a similar framework by making music a pivotal part of the show. The series’ soundtrack, which features tracks sung by cast members, including “No Apologies” and “Drip Drop,” just beat Madonna’s new album, Rebel Heart, for the number one spot on the Billboard 200. Likewise, Daniels has included a number of well-known actors and entertainers as guest stars on the show, including Courtney Love, Naomi Campbell, Jennifer Hudson and Patti LaBelle. The guest appearances have become such an important draw for the series that Daniels is already hyping up a wish list for next season that includes Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington. Actors are apparently even pining to get a spot on the show.

Like New York Undercover, keeping abreast of popular culture, including the music, has made Empire a rating’s juggernaut. Hopefully the show won’t make the same tragic mistake that its musical urban drama predecessor did by cutting the musical guest appearances and performances from the show in favor of a more straight-laced feel (a choice that was inspired by contract disputes, which also inspired cast changes). When that happened, New York Undercover had a hard time retaining the interest of viewers and began to dip in ratings until it was ultimately canceled after a dismal fourth season.

I could see the same thing happening for Empire down the line if Fox isn’t careful. Even with all of the crazy drama, both the music and the guest appearances play a huge role in the show’s appeal. However, Empire may have a fighting chance as long as Daniels and co-creator Danny Strong stay the course and continue to keep throwing any and everything shocking they can against the writer’s wall.

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