What is Hip Hop culture? If you asked 10 people this question, there is a good chance you will get 10 different answers. What most people fail to realize is, that’s kind of the point. As a means of expression, its strength lies in its diversity. Fox takes the idea of Hip Hop and uses it as a vibrant backdrop for its latest drama “Empire”. What happens when a family builds something on their definition of hip hop, and more importantly what happens in an effort to keep what was earned?
Empire follows the story of an immensely popular Hip Hop record label of the same name. As a testament to its success, Empire is on the verge of becoming a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange. At the top of the company is Founder/CEO Luscious Lyon, played by the enigmatic Terrance Howard. A role that will no doubt draw some comparisons to real life Hip Hop Moguls like Sean “P.Diddy” Combs and Sean “Jay-Z” Carter. Luscious practically has come from nothing and envisions Empire becoming public as the culmination of his entire legacy. A legacy that is threatened when he is diagnosed with ASL, and will died in the near future. If that wasn’t his only issue, he also has to deal with the release of his ex-wife from prison “Cookie” Lyon played by Taraji P. Henson.
His ASL diagnosis is a significant eye-opening moment for Luscious. With his time literally counting down, the pressure to secure Empire’s legacy is even more potent. He has to groom a successor sooner than he initial expected. Fortunately for him, he has three sons that could potential claim the mantel. Unfortunately for him, there is something “wrong” with each son that gives him cause to pause. His oldest son is Andre Lyon. He is the most educated of the three brothers and is currently Empire’s CFO. However, he is the only one of the three brothers who is not a musical artist. Luscious has his reservations about a non musician being the head of music company. His next son is Jamaal Lyon. Jamaal has the musical flair the closest resembles his father. To Luscious’ dismay, Jamaal is a homosexual and he has serious doubts to the image of Empire if the CEO is openly gay. Last but not least is his youngest son Hakeem Lyon. Hakeem leans closer to the rapper spectrum of Hip Hop. He is closest to the pulse of what is expected in modern hip hop : flamboyant life styles, money, clothes, cars, jewelry etc. Luscious has doubt with Hakeem’s focus and immaturity with working in the studio. Hakeem being much more concerned with living the lifestyle than making the music. These issues aren’t a one way streak. Each brother has their own issues with the parenting choices of Luscious as well. Luscious increases the pressure on his sons without telling them the reason why, his impending death.
This scenario is further complicated with his ex-wife’s release from prison. She had been incarcerated for 17 years for drug dealing charges. Luscious and Cookie were drug dealers in thier past lives. Cookie took the fall so that Luscious can continue his music career and look after their three children. Empire was funded from drug profits earned by Cookie in the amount of $400,000 dollars. Cookie believes that some of Empire rightfully belongs to her and she isn’t shy about telling everyone about it. Let’s be clear about something, Luscious Lyon is the stories central character, but Cookie Lyon stands on top of the show’s mountain. She is a character that embodies Strength, Tragedy, Love, and Vengeance all at the same time. Cookie could have been a train wreck of stereotypes about black woman in music or this country in general. Tariji P. Henson performance rises the character above alot of that conjecture. Cookie is smart, perceptive and sharp, and while her style is brash and confrontational… only a fool would ignore the message behind her madness. It’s the kind of performance she will at least get nominated for when the next Emmy’s come around.
The show was created by Lee Daniels the director of 2009’s “Precious” and 2011’s “The Butler”. Daniels has experience bringing both modern and historical issues into his plots and does so again with Empire. It’s a mixture of music , writing and pacing that we haven’t seen on television in quite some time. Thematically, Empire isn’t bringing anything new to the table, its standard soap opera fare. However, after a couple of minutes you stop caring because it’s presentation is top-notch. I’d also argue that while the show doesn’t present much of anything new, I don’t think these kinds of themes have been presented on a primetime TV show before. Empire shows a family that is dealing with a multitude of issues that in my opinion still conflict a lot of african american family’s including and not limited too : Homosexuality, Woman in the work place, Inter-racial relationships, Incarceration, Mental Health, Baby-Boomer/Civil Generation vs Generation X/Y, etc. The melodrama is heavy, so sometimes these elements are sensationalized but it’s still better than not dealing with them at all.
It’s a delicate balancing act that isn’t flawless. The show juggles a lot of themes, and as such characters jump motivations almost overnight at times. Outside of Luscious and Cookie the other character’s platforms seem to be made out of straw. It can drive people who are astute to detail a little bonkers but it never gets in the way of the overall story trying to be told. He isn’t afraid of all his ducks not lining up in a row. What he instead leaves is an other wise focused drama that is really about family vs legacy.
The reception of the show has been almost unanimously positive. Performances from both Howard and Henson are sure to bring in some hardware. The rest of the brothers: Trai Bryers, Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Gray are relatively unknowns but this should turn out as a great platform for their careers. Lee Daniels fills out the rest of the roles with solid a solid group including and not limited too : Malik Yoba, Gabourey Sidibe, Grace Gealey, Derek Luke, Kaitlin Doubleday and Jennifer Hudson.
Lastly , and maybe one of the more important decisions Lee Daniels made was to really give a spot light to the music. Lee Daniels can direct and write movies, he can’t make music and he delegates properly. He put Timberland in charge of producing the music for the show and its a decision that is literally paying for itself. The Empire Soundtrack is currently sitting on top of the charts. The music is not only extremely good, the songs compliment the story telling as every song has a meaning and purpose to the dialogue. You could probably make the case of Empire being a musical given how big of a role music plays. In either case with the combination of music and story telling. Empire is one of the best new shows of 2015 and worth a look. The entire show is currently streaming on Hulu.