Original Soundtrack from Season 1 of Empire
(Turn First **1/2)
nolead ends The success of Empire, the runaway hit music business soap opera starring Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, would be nowhere without Timbaland, the time-tested hip-hop producer whom creator Lee Daniels hired to keep corniness at bay. But if it's one thing to create credible new music for a prime-time TV show - as T Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller have done for Nashville - it's even more of a challenge to make character-driven songs for a soap opera that can stand up on their own, removed from the storyline, and compete in the real-life marketplace that's fictionalized on Wednesday nights on Fox.
In that regard, the Empire Soundtrack does . . . not too badly. For instance, "Good Enough," the ballad sung by Jussie Smollett, who plays Jamal, forced to cope with the homophobia of his father Lucious (Howard), makes a plea for understanding nonspecific enough to be broadly interpreted by anyone who seeks the approval of a mule-headed parent. It would sound right at home on a Timbaland-produced Justin Timberlake album. The entire 18-song album - which also features Philadelphia rapper Yazz (real name Bryshere Gray, who plays Jamal's brother Hakeem), as well as such guest stars as Estelle, Mary J. Blige, and, regrettably, Courtney Love - does not maintain that high standard (or entirely avoid corniness). But it's a solid enough hip-hop and R&B platter to be enjoyable even if you don't watch the show.
- Dan DeLuca
nolead begins Asleep at the Wheel
nolead ends nolead begins Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys
nolead ends nolead begins (Bismeaux ***1/2)
nolead ends Although Still the King is their third tribute to Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys, Asleep at the Wheel has yet to exhaust Wills' rich well of Western swing. Led by Philly-area-born Ray Benson, Asleep at the Wheel and a barnful of guests make this fiddle music from the early 20th century come alive with joy, wit, and instrumental expertise. These are lively dance songs, full of humor and verve.
The guest list is impressive: from the young (Kat Edmonson, Pokey LaFarge, former Philadelphian Amos Lee) to the old (Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, the Del McCoury Band) to the superstars (George Strait, Brad Paisley). But the real stars are Wills' lively songbook and Asleep at the Wheel's fleet-fingered musicianship on such cuts as "Tiger Rag," "My Window Faces the South," and "Bubbles in My Beer."
- Steve Klinge
nolead begins Ricky Martin
nolead ends nolead begins A Quien Quiera Escuchar
nolead ends nolead begins (Sony Latin ***1/2)
nolead ends Ricky Martin is too often taken for granted. Although he hasn't recorded much since the swinging "Living la Vida Loca," Martin didn't really need to. That tune created, defined, and refined where Latino-Anglo dance-pop could go, with the Puerto Rico-born singer as its hip-shaking messiah. For his first all-Latin language album since 1998's Vuelve, Martin reaches back to where he came from (no, not Menudo) and brings it into the shimmying pop present.
The brassy cumbia-meets-baile "Adiós" starts A Quien Quiera Escuchar (To the One Who Wants to Listen), referring to the life he's led since becoming a star. The singer injects similar deep feelings into the midtempo tropicália of "Cuanto Me Acuerdo de Ti." The rhythm also regales "La Mordita," touched with reggaeton and cumbia. Not every groove is salsa-speedy, and that's where Martin's soulfulness truly comes alive. The humming Latin jazz of "Náufrago," the hand-drummed flamenco of "Isla Bella," and the spare, cello-laced balladry of "Disparo al Corazón" are tender displays of Martin's emotional purr.
- A.D. Amorosi