Riddle Me List: The 10 Best Songs From 'Empire'

FOX's Empire initially had me at Cookie. Cookie Lyon that is. I hadn't even watched a minute of the Lee Daniels-helmed show, but once the sharp-tongued jailbird matriarch Cookie (who is portrayed to perfection by Taraji P. Henson) and her quips found their way onto my Tumblr dash, the reblog button was put to immediate use. After being prodded by fellow bloggers and friends who all assured me the show was a fast-paced thrill ride in the vein of old school faves like Dynasty and Dallas, I took a weekend to binge watch the series thus far, and within a few minutes I was hooked, lined, and getting swept up in the sudsy soap opera shenanigans and scandals of the dysfunctional, yet headstrong Lyon family.

For those not in the know, Empire's universe revolves around the Hip-Hop dynasty that former rapper-turned-raging-asshole CEO, Lucious Lyon (played exceptionally sleazy by the exceptionally sleazy Terrence Howard) has created. Due to a life-threatening illness, Lyon is in the process of handing his 'empire' over to one of his three sons --- either the power hungry and mentally unstable businessman Andre (Trai Byers), the artistic and conflicted Jamal (Jussie Smollett), or the trust fund brat rapper-in-training, Hakeem (Bryshere "Yazz" Gray). As it is based on Shakespeare's King Lear, there are heaps of drama concerning this battle for inheritance as everyone including Madame Cookie want a piece of the dominance pie, yet amid all the familial squabbles, eyebrow-raising drama, and Cookie snatching scenes and serving side-eyes left and right, music is theoretically the show's focal point.

On deck as the show's executive music director is Timbaland, and with Aaliyah, Justin Timberlake, and Missy Elliott as former and current musical compadres, he was a wise choice as he is capable of lending an accessible ear towards the show's majorly Hip-Hop and R&B soundtrack. So even if you don't care that much for Hip-Hop (like I don't from time-to-time), there is still something for everybody to enjoy. Some have criticized that the music is out-of-date and overzealous, and valid opinions they are as the sounds heard on Empire do tend to waffle between being probable hit material (mostly everything Jamal aka Jussie Smollett sings) to junk drawer janky (I can't be the only one who thinks of this when I hear the terrible "Drip Drop"?).

Still, like the Lyons' and their crooked ways, you can't be perfect all the time, and for the sake of argument, Empire's soundtrack does posses some gleaming gems, and to celebrate the 2-hour season finale (which airs tonight!), I decided to comb through the show's overflowing soundtrack and pick out some of my favorites, narrowing them down to 10 slots. Okay? Alright.

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+ Keep Your Money (feat. Jussie Smollet): This track is extremely catchy and it possesses the sickest of beats, but I more so favored how this song was threaded into a storyline of Jamal coming up with the song under pressure, with limited resources, and having to record it all in a place called Ghetto Ass Studios with bullet holes and tech guys who eat cereal out of salad bowls. To me, when you're pressed for time and backed into corners of doubt and fear, that is when creativity strikes you best. 

+ Lola (feat. Jussie Smollett)
If you're going to write a song for the sweet little girl who you haven't taken a damn DNA test for to find out if it is your daughter or not (seriously, in Empire universe they can get ALS drugs from Russia, but not get a freaking DNA test?!) you better make it fast one that funks in all the right places.

+ What Is Love (feat. V. Bozeman)
It's a little odd that such a maudlin ballad opens a gritty show that is filled with even grimier people, but Timbaland's latest protege is so vocally effective that it works, especially when she hits those robust notes that soar clean through the atmosphere. From this bone-chilling start you know something pretty big is about to happen. The full version is even better so crank it up and feel all the feels. Side note: Bozeman is definitely one to watch and she can bring even bigger heat as her blisteringly conscious, "Race Jones" was one of the underrated anthems megaphoned during the early cracklings of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

+ What The DJ Spins (feat. Terrence Howard)
This sounds like some throwback Ja Rule and I'm here for it. That shouting with mushed cereal in mouth sound just takes me back to getting pumped before high school football games, so consider this a nostalgic bias. But truly, skip Baby Wipes Terrence trying to struggle sing with Mary J. Blige on "Shake Down", and allow him to fix his mug into a Lucious Lyon: The Rapper stance. I wouldn't expect anything less from someone who did "Whoop That Trick", ya know?

+ Live In The Moment (feat. Jussie Smollett & Yazz)
Showing off indeed. This is the moment where I realized that this show was going to go pass my three-episodes-or-you're-out test --- and this musical number happened in the pilot. The pilot. Hakeem is more likable (and believable) when he musically fuses with his bro, the two of them stepping into the shoes of Diggy Simmons and John Legend respectively, and doing Hip-Hop blended R&B the right way.

+ Walk Out On Me (feat. Courtney Love)
Seeing Courtney Love wobble into the Lyon universe was a pleasant surprise and from jump it was brilliant casting as I can't think of anyone else to portray the unstable Mable that is Elle Dallas, Empire Entertainment's first major star. For her comeback, she curls up into the inky misery, sounding abused and mangled a la Marianne Faithfull Broken English era, and it's a raw and engaging performance that even Anika aka Miss Boo Boo Kitty --- try as she devilishly might --- can't unsyrup.

+ NY Raining (feat. Charles Hamilton & Rita Ora)
Ohhhh, so this is what Rita Ora sounds like...okay, okay, gotchu girl. Let me lay it out and say that I was completely was taken off-guard by this track, so much so that I almost slipped on the treadmill while listening, dumbfounded at the heat these two bring on this. With Hamilton's lyricals snap, crackling and popping, and Ora slinking in with a memorable hook, this tune has hit written all over it.

+ Conqueror (feat. Jussie Smollett & Estelle)
I'm a sucker for inspiring tracks that feature powerhouse vocals, lots of synths, and motivational poster-worthy lyrics, and this one has it ALL. In the clip, Estelle plays recording artist Delphine who becomes Empire Entertainment's latest signee, but before any of that occurs, she takes the time to duet with Jamal, who is stanning like mad, but winds down enough to match Delphine note-for-note and the two are just so cheek-pinchingly cute together. For a Jamal-less version, "Conqueror" is actually one of Estelle's official singles from her recently dropped True Romance project, but personally, I like the quality and enthusiasm of this duet much better.

+ You're So Beautiful (All Versions) 
No two people hear or interpret the same song the same exact way, and that, to me, is the beauty of music. Empire highlighted this aspect perfectly as "You're So Beautiful" was used to great thematic effect on the episode "The Lyon's Roar" as it revealed real and divergent truths and feelings from whomever it vocally embodied. From it initially being Lucious' honestly sweet '90s love ode to his "Cookie Monster", the song became a strong pillar for Jamal to stand on in order to come out publicly, while through Cookie the song was a comforting lullaby for her to hug tight to while locked behind bars. It was just brilliant how this type of characterization was done, and to say I wasn't misty-eyed through this whole episode would be a lie. As an added bonus, the track gets another go-round for the following episode "Unto The Breach" where it becomes a fun family affair with Serayah McNeill's Tiana and Estelle's Delphine in tow.

+ I Wanna Love You (feat. Jussie Smollett)
Jamal's former boo Michael probably haaaaates this song because he thought it was about him, but whatever, he can stay pressed like a turkey and mozzarella panni for all I care because this song kicks. It's an easy slide into homeplate for the best song of the whole dang season. Yes, I'm aware that this list already makes me seem like a Jussie Junkie, but I can't shake how someone at Empire casting offices had a brain to find some relatively unknown actors and allow them to let their talents come out and party, and that we get to be invited to Jussie's. This wedge of breezy rhythmic soul is a groove that Justin Timberlake could've easily done on Justified, but I don't think he would've gotten as sophisticated as this.

Honorable Mentions

Take Me To The River (feat. Courtney Love): Elle Dallas (aka Love) cleanses herself in Talking Heads rolling rapids more so than Al Green's rushing soul stream, but still an all-around great and energized cover.

All Of The Above (feat. Jussie Smollett): Not gonna lie...I busted out into peels of laughter when this song came on as the awkward visual roamed way too hard and basic into "How Does It Feel" territory. Now if Jamal was switched with Andre, then it'd be a whole new scenario...(ya'll know he be packing some serious muscle in those tight blazers he sports...mmmhmm). Still, the silly video actually masks the fact that this is some diet Prince that is worth it for the falsettos Jussie tries on.

Remember The Music (feat. Jennifer Hudson): Though Hudson has her voice coloring too outside the lines at times, I thought the sentiment in this track was beautiful considering how this song segues into Andre's mental illness battle, which has provided the series with its most riveting and more sensitively handled plotline thus far. But about that "Let's pray" part...do you really have to lock doors and caress thighs in order to speak to the Lord? Come on now...

Empire's entire soundtrack is available to purchase and stream via iTunes and Spotify.

Empire is on Wednesdays at 8:00/9:00 CST on FOX, check local listings for proper times.
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