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'Empire' aims to climb music charts as well as TV rankings

ON A recent afternoon at a Burbank rehearsal studio, Jussie Smollett and West Philly's Bryshere Gray, two of the breakout stars of Fox's soapy hip-hop musical, "Empire," joked their way through a photo shoot while a band in the room next door worked on one of the show's standout tunes, "You're So Beautiful."

ON A recent afternoon at a Burbank rehearsal studio, Jussie Smollett and West Philly's Bryshere Gray, two of the breakout stars of Fox's soapy hip-hop musical, "Empire," joked their way through a photo shoot while a band in the room next door worked on one of the show's standout tunes, "You're So Beautiful."

"My Beyonce fan is messing up your makeup," Smollett said to the woman fussing over his face, sending the two into giggles.

Packed with drama, go-for-broke camp and original music, "Empire" has become one of the early hits of 2015 - and has the social-media buzz to match its high ratings, which have continued to grow over eight consecutive weeks. The show's two-hour season finale airs tonight at 8 p.m. on Fox 29.

But can the show's television success translate to the real-life world of music?

Fox has tried crossovers before, having set the bar with the high-school vocal pop of confection "Glee." But despite scripted, music-driven shows finding chart success - "Glee," NBC's short-lived Broadway drama "Smash," ABC's "Nashville" - the genre has yet to prove it can create viable recording artists.

For "Empire," Fox is following the "Glee" model. The network partnered with Columbia Records to release the music after each episode. The label also signed Smollett and Gray to solo deals.

At the Burbank space, the two were preparing for upcoming television performances and a radio promo tour in support of a compilation soundtrack that features the show's best numbers. The soundtrack, released last week, also boasts appearances from a range of pop heavyweights, including Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Hudson, Courtney Love, Estelle and Juicy J.

Smollett, a former child star ("The Mighty Ducks," ABC's "On Our Own"), released an EP in 2012, and Gray has been rapping since he was a teenager in West Philadelphia, under the stage name Yazz the Greatest.

Their roles on "Empire" as musically inclined brothers have yielded some radio-worthy tunes overseen by producer Timbaland - whose litany of hits includes those by Missy Elliott, Aaliyah, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake and Jay Z - and Philly-based partner Jim Beanz.

"I was recording my album in a home studio off of Fairfax [Avenue]," Smollett said, "and then four weeks later I'm at the Hit Factory with Timbaland and Jim Beanz. It's a dream. I keep saying it's the most beautiful exhaustion of my life."

A dramatic success

"Empire" has proved itself a game-changer. Conceptualized by Lee Daniels ("Precious") and writing partner Danny Strong ("The Butler") as a hip-hop version of "The Lion in Winter," the series follows an ailing former gangster rapper turned mogul (Terrence Howard), his ex-con wife (Taraji P. Henson) and their three rival sons.

Amid the campy drama and flashy musical numbers, "Empire" tackles rarely explored terrain such as homophobia, mental illness and race. And viewers can't get enough.

Since it premiered in January, it's become the top-rated new series in the highly coveted 18 to 49 demographic and is TV's fastest-growing new drama since Fox's medical hit "House" more than a decade ago. The show got its sophomore season after the second episode.

"Lee Daniels and Danny Strong have been able to so precisely mix the glitz and the glamour of an old-school musical with the drama and soapiness of 'Dynasty' and the truth of what's happening in our society right now in this moment. And it's brilliant," said Smollett, who plays Jamal, a talented singer-songwriter overlooked by his father because he's gay.

Success aside, "Empire" has weathered controversy. Critics have skewered everything from the show's portrayal of the rap industry and its attempt to tackle serious issues to its music.

High volume

Creating original music for "Empire" was a breakneck process, according to producers.

"Timbaland and I went into the process thinking we would do the songs and they would write around them," said Beanz, born James David Washington. "The timeline . . . it trains you for war. You have maybe a day to get the song written and produced, even for a rough draft."

One of the show's writers usually offers songwriters an overview of what each song should cover. Beanz writes and records demo versions of the tracks before sending them to Timbaland for approval. The music is then sent to the network and the label. ("They make sure it doesn't give away too much of the storyline or plot," Beanz said.) Beanz, who also appears on the series as gangster rapper Titan, then flies to the show's Chicago set to record cast members.

"It's a quick turnaround," songwriter-producer Justin Bostwick added. "Knowing minimal details and hoping that it turned out."

A number of tracks have garnered buzz. "Drip Drop" spawned memes; "You're So Beautiful" scored a powerful coming-out scene; Estelle's ballad "Conqueror" rocketed to No. 1 on iTunes' hip-hop/rap chart after it aired; and Smollett's searing anthem "Good Enough" has the potential to become a radio hit with 40 stations already playing the track. And the show's catalog of songs has more than a million downloads so far, according to Columbia.

"Certainly, making original songs for every episode was going to be a unique challenge," said Geoff Bywater, Fox's head of music. "But because we are doing original music, we are really allowed to use the music in all avenues of promotion - and that's what's really exciting about it."

There are talks of a tour, although producers said that that's not likely until after Season 2, which is also when solo albums from Smollett and Gray are expected. Though Gray said during a phone-in news conference yesterday, "to be honest, I'm not focused on dropping [my project]."

Timbaland also brought his protege V. Bozeman to the series, and she plans to launch her debut project on the heels of her recurring role. Serayah McNeill, who plays fiery pop-R&B singer Tiana Brown, is also currently recording.

Old-school assist

Aside from emerging acts, the series is also boosting established ones, such as Love and Blige. Hudson and Snoop Dogg, along with Rita Ora, Juicy J and - in another Philly shoutout, Patti LaBelle - will appear in tonight's finale.

Gray said yesterday that it was a thrill to meet fellow West Philadelphian LaBelle, although he was "a little disappointed she didn't bring me some chicken." (Yeah, Patti's cooking skills are famous.)

For the show's second season, which is expected to have a larger episode order, Fox and Columbia plan to recruit additional songwriters and producers to keep up with the show's musical demands.

Beanz will be working from here on tunes for the second season, too, Gray shared yesterday.

"It's confounding people that every week it's growing in audience," Bywater said. "But it's like a hit record. And 'Empire' is doing exactly what a hit record does - it keeps climbing the charts."

- Daily News Staff Writer Jonathan Takiff contributed to this story.