Empire roars back next week with the premiere of its third season (Sept. 21, 9 p.m. ET/PT) with an episode titled "Light in Darkness."
As fans will recall, season two ended with plenty of questions. Hakeem was left alone at the altar, Lucious and Anika had married and the bride and Rhonda were fighting on the roof when someone fell. And, in the midst of establishing his streaming service, Lucious was busy fending off his half-brother Tariq, who is leading a federal task force investigating the music mogul.
To give fans a taste of what's in store musically next week, Billboard today premieres "Need Freedom." The soulful social commentary track features Jussie Smollett (Jamal) and was written by Empire's new supervising music producer, Rodney Jerkins.
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Calling to mind Marvin Gaye's seminal "What's Going On," "Need Freedom" was born out of a song written for rapper character Freda Gatz. "It started as 'Free Freda,' says Jerkins, "as she's locked up in jail. But once I sat down with Jussie, we started talking about everything going on in the country."
"I recorded this exactly seven days after Philando Castile was shot," continues Smollett. "Between the shootings of Castile, Alton Sterling, at the Pulse in Orlando and the police officers in Dallas - not to mention the other numerous killings oer the last couple of years - it was like we couldn't breathe. What are we doing as a people, a nation; what messages are we sending to the next generation. Then this song came."
Adds Jerkins, "So we ended up with two versions of the song for the show, 'Need Freedom' and 'Free Freda.'"
Listen to "Need Freedom" here:
It's all in keeping with Empire's renewed focus this season on the intense family dynamic that turned the series into a pop culture phenomenon, and ratings leader, during season one. There's also a push to integrate more of what's happening in the real world within the storylines.
"Even though it was written for the show, 'Need Freedom' is a song that sets the tone," says Shawn Holiday, senior VP of A&R for Columbia Records. "We think it's important to shed more light on social issues and want Empire to be a part of that."
Watch Jussie and Rodney in the studio here:
Exactly one week away from @empirefox season premiere. We have new music... And it truly means something. Honored to work with a great... my brother @rodneyjerkins. #NeedFreedom premieres tomorrow on billboard.com and avail to download this Friday. #Empire ✊-- enjoy. #AllLove
A video posted by Jussie Smollett (@jussiesmollett) on Sep 14, 2016 at 5:46pm PDT
"This show is about family in every single element of the word," echoes Smollett. "Yes, it's about the music industry but it's more about what we go through as a blood family, an American family. The good and bad that every family goes through. All that comes into play this season."
"Need Freedom" will be available on iTunes tomorrow (Sept. 16).