Pop Star Wars: “Empire” Strikes Back

Posted March 19, 2015 by J Matthew Cobb in HiDef

Television show compilation blocks Madonna from number one spot, plus the ratings continues to soar


On a recent episode of Fox’s newest hit TV show Empire, an inebriated Cookie Lyons (played by Hustle & Flow actress Taraji P. Henson) was pushed into a vehicle by security. She could be heard shouting, “Take these cookies!”

And that’s exactly what fans of the show did. On a week when the TV’s show new music compilation was to hit the streets and was only supposed to sell a few hundred copies (25,000 was the actual number of the original forecast), music buyers jumped at the opportunity to buy those cookies. It’s considered a phenomenon, especially since it kept Madonna from debuting her newest LP, Rebel Heart, at the No. 1 spot. She might be the Queen of Pop, but she’s apparently no match for Cookie.

Since Nielsen Soundscan and Billboard announced that they were now factoring track equivalent albums (TEA) and album equivalent albums (AEA) into their data for their Billboard 200 chart, the rules have changed. Empire – which features new music from its star Jussie Smollett and a host of musical giants like Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Hudson, Juicy J, Rita Ora and others – sold 130,000 units. Rebel Heart only sold 121,000, pushing her to the number two spot. Making the sting a little more painful, this has been the first time Madonna has failed to hit the number one spot on the Billboard 200 since 1998’s Ray of Light. That album was stalled from the top spot by the colossal Titanic motion picture soundtrack.

This week, Madonna and the stars of Empire both hit the road campaigning for their albums. While performing her new single “Living for Love” at the BRIT Awards, Madonna slipped and fell on stage. The accident, which quickly went viral in GIF land, is one she wants to put way behind her. The blunder was expected to be silenced as Madonna shifted into her one-week residency on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. After mentioning to DeGeneres while on her daytime talk show that the on-stage flop was due to a faulty wardrobe malfunction, Madonna seemed upset to be discussing the subject.

Not everything has been peachy in the world of public relations for Empire either. Earlier this week, Smollett opened up to DeGeneres about his own sexuality, which had been in question since co-star Malik Yoba allegedly outed him “by accident.” Although Yoba mentioned he was falsely misquoted, Smollett — a bit reluctant at first — sat down with DeGeneres privately and admitted he was gay. “There is no closet that I’ve ever been in,” he told the TV host.

The uncomfortable, but inspiring moment created some very good news for the LGBT community, but wasn’t enough to silence a back-and-forth discussion (similar to a mini-feud) over comments made by Empire co-producer Lee Daniels about Academy-award winner Mo’Nique. That conversation hasn’t been all that fruitful for Daniels, since he suggested that Mo’Nique had been “blackballed” by Hollywood for not “playing the game.”

And then there are those that refuse to support the show for other reasons. As more minorities find themselves on hit TV programming, some African-Americans believe these sitcoms and dramas are pushing a dangerous agenda of liberalism down their throats. For a number of black religious Southerners, Empire may be too much to swallow. One tweeter complained to Shonda Rhimes that a number of “gay scenes” in Shondaland, particularly Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, were “too much.” She blasted back at the viewer and those who continue to support  frail and closed-minded mentalities.




With Empire presenting an gay character in the life of Jamal Lyon, some conservatives are barking at the show for the very same reasons. And then there’s the uncomfortable display of long enduring stereotypes about urban culture and the consistent views of domestic violence, sex scenes and industry corruption. But this is an adult drama and is purely fictional. It’s a slice of Dynasty trapped in a world of hip-hop, a black folks’ take on Nashville. For those seeking for family values, there’s channels for that. But Empire is not The Cosby Show and has never professed to be that. Regardless of the hilarious claims made by Sean “P. Diddy” Combs that the story line seems to mimic his own, Empire is not supposed to be taking serious. But maybe that’s what makes the show so addictive. Since the show premiered, it has been breaking records week after week. Analysts haven’t seen a debut TV series achieve the merits Empire has in years, leaving some critics to call it a phenomenon. Six weeks into the show, ratings continued to rise. On January 9, it premiered to 9.9 million viewers. On February 18, nearly 13 million Americans were tuned in. The show has even helped give the crumbling dinosaur known as American Idol alive in the ratings.

It also features an exclusive soundtrack powered by real life hit-making producer Timbaland. Some of the songs are quite comical in their arrangements. “Drip Drop” may be the most silliest of them all, as if he’s tossed his throwaway demos at the show’s producers. But Timbaland is using the laws of chemistry to make these songs work, and critics are taking notice to it. “Say what you will about the silliness of a tune like ‘Drip Drop,’ Empire’s music-makers, on-camera and behind the scenes, know how to create catchy songs — even one for Courtney Love, who by extension has now scored her first number one hit,” wrote Ken Tucker of Yahoo! TV.

Smollett’s “Good Enough” sounds like it was cooked in a brute contemporary R&B seasoning. His “coming out” anthem, “You’re So Beautiful,” dances around Justin Timberlake disco. Both songs, including Love’s “Walk Out on Me,” are selling well individually and prove that this show could potentially match the chart success of singles made by another FOX show, Glee. Only time will tell if Empire can and will hold its reign.

In the meantime, Madonna is preparing to tour again. Pre-sales for some of the dates of are already available to the public and to her fan club.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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