Is “Empire” the Reason for 2015’s Resurgence of Black Music?


The television juggernaut series Empire – the show that centers on hip-hop music and the fictitious record company Empire Entertainment – is about to begin its second season Wednesday, September 23, on the Fox TV network.  When the show made its début on January 7, 2015, it was an instant smash, with an estimated first-week viewership of 9.9 million viewers, making it the biggest series launch for Fox in three years.  The show’s audience during that first season (consisting of 12 episodes) rose each week, topping out at 17.62 million for the season finale in March.

Around the same time just before the show’s début in January, music by black artists had been experiencing a low percentage share on the Billboard charts, with black musicians being absent from the top ten on the Hot 100 singles chart for the first time in 27 years (see the first djrobblog article here, which covered the historic downturn in black music popularity).

Oh what a difference eight months has made!

As Empire’s popularity increased in February and March, so seemingly did the music of real-life black musicians.  Beginning in February, Drake’s “mix-tape” album debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 with sales in excess of 500,000 copies in its first week, still the largest of 2015.  This was followed quickly by #1 albums from Big Sean, Kendrick Lamar, Wale, A$AP Rocky, Meek Mill, Tyrese, Future, Jill Scott and The Weeknd (whose album is now in its third straight week at the top).  Add in the soundtrack albums for Empire’s Season 1 and the movie Furious 7, and you get 13 albums by predominantly black artists that have reached Number One on Billboard’s main chart (out of 30 total number one albums this year).  This number will likely rise when rap veteran Kanye West, rap newcomer Fetty Wap, and pop legend Janet Jackson release their long-awaited new albums in the coming months.

Jamaican singer OMI has scored a million-selling #1 pop hit with his reggae-fusion single “Cheerleader,” which is one of seven songs in this week’s pop top ten by black male artists.

On the singles side, the story has been pretty much the same, with R&B/hip-hop songs scaling the top ten of the Hot 100 chart like it was the 1990s all over again, or maybe 2004, when songs by black musicians occupied the #1 slot on the Hot 100 for the entire year.  Okay, maybe it hasn’t been that dominant this year, but the accomplishments by black musicians in 2015 – particularly the newcomers – has been nothing short of astonishing!

I’ve already devoted much of djrobblog to coverage of The Weeknd’s success, which keeps growing week by week.  This week, his single “The Hills” becomes the new #1 song in the country, topping the Billboard Hot 100 for the chart dated October 3, while displacing his previous #1 hit, “Can’t Feel My Face,” which falls to #3.  By doing this, The Weeknd becomes the first male artist in seven years to replace himself at #1 – and only the 11th artist overall in the chart’s 58-year history.  Last week, “Can’t Feel My Face” and “The Hills” were at numbers one and two simultaneously, placing him among rare company in that category as well.

New Jersey rapper, Fetty Wap, has enjoyed one of the ten biggest hits of 2015 with his mega-hit, “Trap Queen,” which spent nearly half a year in the top ten of the Hot 100.

But The Weeknd isn’t alone in this year’s breakthrough success by relative newcomers.  New Jersey-based rapper Fetty Wap has enjoyed one of 2015’s biggest singles with “Trap Queen,” which peaked at #2 and spent nearly six months in the top ten – becoming one of the Hot 100’s longest-running top-ten singles ever.  He quickly followed that up with two more top-ten singles, “My Way” and “679,” the latter of which is still there at #7.  Then there’s Jamaican singer OMI (born Omar Pasley) whose reggae-fusion pop hit “Cheerleader” topped the Hot 100 for six weeks this summer and is also still in the top ten.

If you haven't tried to whip or nae-nae this year, then you haven't heard of Silento's smash single, which is still riding the top five of the Hot 100.
If you haven’t tried to whip or nae-nae this year, then you haven’t heard of Silento’s smash single, which is still riding the top five of the Hot 100.

Adding to all of this is the young southern rapper from Atlanta, Silento, whose “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” has also been in the top ten now for months, still holding near its #3 peak (it’s #4 again this week).  That song was inspired by its namesake dance sensation and has largely benefited from the craze sparked by its now-famous official video, which has had nearly a quarter billion views on YouTube alone.  By the way, this newcomer to the charts, born Ricky Hawk, is only 17 years old.

And not to be outdone by all the newcomers, veteran rappers scored hits too.  Wiz Khalifa scored the second-biggest hit of 2015 with his “See You Again” single, which topped the chart for 12 weeks.  And Drake adds to his top-ten success this week as his “Hotline Bling” moves 16-9 on the latest Billboard chart, giving the veteran rapper his 14th top-ten on the Hot 100, and his first in two years (as a lead artist).

Brothers Theron and Timothy Thomas, (a/k/a Rock City) of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, are in the Hot 100’s top ten this week with their hit “Locked Away,” featuring Adam Levine of maroon5. They’ve also written or produced many hit songs for other artists over the past decade.

Is all of this newfound success by black musicians – both newcomers and veterans alike – a fluke?  Is it a coincidence?  Or was it caused by the phenomenal success of the TV series Empire, which seemingly gave the R&B/Hip-Hop music genre a much-needed shot in the arm this past winter by exposing it to TV audiences who were otherwise consuming large doses of music by Taylor Swift, Meghan Trainor, Ed Sheeran and Ariana Grande and the steady stream of EDM artists out there.  Will the second season of Empire further increase the exposure of hip-hop music and result in even more success for its main creators?

Or was this just another inevitable crest in a continuing cycle of ebbs and flows for black music, which has seen earlier heydays in nearly every other decade since the rock and roll era began in the mid-1950s?  We will soon see how long this one lasts.

As always, I welcome your views.

And check out this djroblist of the 15 most important real-life black-owned music labels of all time by clicking here.