Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Drip Dropping the Music of 'Empire'

If you have not been watching FOX's 'Empire,' you may not know that one of the most integral elements of the show it its music. After all, it is the story of a hip hop label called Empire Records, one that was founded by the protagonist of the show Lucious Lyon, who you can see as a kind of fictional Jay-Z. Right now, his sons are battling over who will take it over; two of his three sons are also talented musically, while the third one feels left out of the family because he is not (unless it involves something called 'music therapy' where J-Hud sings to you or joining in for a trio of 'Lean on Me' in an elevator. If you aren't watching this show yet, I must ask WHY NOT???). As a result, we get a lot of songs on 'Empire.' Sometimes, these are songs being recorded in Ghetto Ass Studios, which is a real place in the Empire universe--in fact, to prove that the title is not just a nickname, they have recorded at Ghetto Ass Studios more than once. Sometimes, these songs are performed in the club, Leviticus, with family and friends and people who just signed record contracts with Empire and Rhianna-stand-ins named Tiana and random bystanders joining in:

In fact, 'You're So Beautiful' shows up a number of times on the show: Jamal (middle kid) alters the lyrics to publicly come out of the closet at the annual Lyon White Party (okay, maybe picture a blend of Jay-Z with Sean 'Puffy' Combs); we see Lucious singing the song to Cookie right before she goes to prison; and we even see Cookie consoling herself with the song while she is in prison, sans weave, sans animal prints, and sans heels (could this even be the same Cookie?):

Thanks for this screen capture go to Price Peterson, over at Yahoo, who has arguably the best 'Empire' recaps in all the land
'You're So Beautiful' is this feel-good hit, one that everyone in the Empire universe knows, and one that has clearly been around for at least seventeen years since that is when Cookie originally went to jail. It works as a feel-good song because it has that catchy chorus, with all credit due to Timbaland, who is writing the music for the show. This song is very much in the vein of Timbaland's number-one hit, 'The Way I Are,' which operates on similar catchy-chorus principles--except that 'You're So Beautiful' has better grammatical conceits.

But what is 'Empire''s 'best' song? I need to put that in scare quotes because it depends on how you want to evaluate that. Certainly, I would put 'You're So Beautiful' in the running because of its general all-around catchiness and its versatility for various key points throughout the show (e.g., coming out at a party, singing in the club with friends and family, pre-trial ballad, prison consolation song). But I'm going to make a controversial choice for best song of 'Empire' and say that, for me, it is unquestionably youngest son Hakeem's 'Drip Drop':

First things first: this is a terrible song on many levels. Please don't misunderstand me when I say it is 'Empire''s best. It is inane to a point where I might have to look through Kim Kardashian lyrics to find something worse. Just one screen capture from a video with the lyrics should help to demonstrate my point:

This cracks me up every time I look at it.
But I feel very confident that if 'Drip Drop' were recorded with the right combination of artists, it would be a giant hit. For is it any worse than Rhianna's 'Birthday Cake'? I would argue no (those of you who follow the blog would likely not be surprised by this, given my animosity toward 'Birthday Cake'). What I think 'Drip Drop' does is parody the exact kind of hit that we would expect from a Drake and Co., right down to the mandatory Rhianna-eseque appearance by Tiana. I would love for Lil' Wayne to drop by Empire Records and add a verse because I think it would fit perfectly, plus I have faith that he would find a way of parodying the parody and invoke toilets or something <-- NSWF link. Don't listen if you are easily offended. Not censored.

Let's move on to the the ridiculous video featuring ridiculous hip hop girls in ridiculous outfits, dancing around in a ridiculous manner. When Hakeem first presents the idea during an Empire board meeting (this company has the best freaking board meetings), he suggests using a green screen to allow him to be on a jet ski with several girls hanging off of it while singing the song--if you want a recap, the best can be found at Grantland. And what, I ask, could be more of a parody than a jet ski? It screams ostentation, unnecessary, and ridiculous. Perhaps that's why it was the favorite toy of Eastbound and Down's anti-hero Kenny Powers? <-- NSWF link. Don't watch if you are easily offended. You may need more context if you don't know the show. But it most certainly involves a jet ski. If you think of Hakeem as as hip hop's Kenny Powers, but with Jay-Z/Sean 'Puffy' Combs as his father, frankly his whole character starts to make much more sense.

Now there have been other songs on 'Empire,' arguably better songs. The most popular of these was likely Jamal's 'Keep Your Money,' which he recorded in response to Lucious cutting off his money (which all ties back to the fact that Jamal is gay, and Lucious is very much not okay with that). 'Keep Your Money' also benefited from Cookie's intervention, as the link demonstrates, as she walks in to Ghetto Ass Studios and offers her opinion about how the song should be mixed. 'Empire' is drawing on two common tropes here: the Empire is strongest when family members work together and the artists are at their best when they are speaking 'from the heart.' The first reduces the show to a cliché; as last week's episode demonstrated, this is a deeply broken family, one that can also be torn apart by these same characters when they are at their worst (things got all bordering on a V.C. Andrews novel). Cookie is trying to be the glue that holds them together, but she is also constantly hurt by the actions of those around her. Maybe she can fix a studio recording, but she hasn't been able to fix all of their problems yet.

As for the second conceit, that artists need to draw on their inner lives, this is certainly a thread that has permeated 'Empire.' In the show's opening scene, we saw Lucious in a recording studio, urging a young star to draw on her most painful memories to bring out the emotion in a song. Must we be so romantic, I ask? Must Jamal feel the pain of living in some non-gentrified neighborhood in Brooklyn with tacky kitchen cupboards to find his voice in 'Keep Your Money'? Is this not simply reinforcing the notion that artist biography and output must be intertwined? Why can't we just 'drip drop' with Hakeem? The show seems to posit that 'Keep Your Money' was a breakout song for Jamal, one that cemented his reputation beyond the small clubs where he had previously been playing. Implicitly, its hit status grew because of its authenticity and its ties to Jamal's life. But I doubt that would happen in reality.

It's worth noting that in the week that FOX released 'Drip Drop' and 'Keep Your Money,' the latter was downloaded more than the former; however, I wonder if the fact that 'Empire' purposefully presented the former as verging on parody influenced this reaction. For my money, 'Drip Drop' still wins, simply because it so succinctly sums up a specific sound and ambiance that I expect to hear on the radio. Is it good as an artistic product? Not even I would claim that. Would it be popular? I suspect yes. Throw Lil' Wayne on that track and you'd have a hit song in no time.