Is Empire's Depiction of the Hip-Hop World Authentic?

The show tackles questions of realness in the genre through the attempted recruitment of imprisoned rapper Titan.


Joe Reid and Kevin O'Keeffe discuss the fourth episode of the hit musical drama series Empire and Fox's questionable choice of a broom closet for its Teen Choice Awards nomination concert.

O'Keeffe: Joe, I'm positively tickled Empire is a runaway hit. My excitement is partially thanks to Empire being the the kind of show I want to see more of (diverse ensembles in shows that explore worlds beyond crime/medicine/law). It's partially due to me getting quite attached to it in our little next-day discussions. And, surprisingly, it's partially because it's getting quite good! The very bad second episode is seeming more and more like a fluke; this week's installment revealed a show that is confident in what it is, despite still being messy.

Our main storylines this week were indeed erratic: Cookie took over as manager for Tiana, giving our High Priestess of Camp another win over the increasingly out-of-her-depth Anika. The young star and her Lyon brother boyfriend Hakeem played the Teen Choice Awards nomination concert—something I sincerely hope does not exist in the real world—while Cookie and Anika grappled over who would recruit imprisoned star Titan to the Empire label, and how. Lucious eventually got it done thanks to the groundwork Cookie laid for him, for which he was grateful, and Anika nearly got shot in a drive-by. Also, Tiana found out Hakeem is sleeping with Naomi Campbell, but didn't care as long as he doesn't damage her career. Jamal is living in Bushwick with his boyfriend now, but he's creatively inspired by the sounds around him, or something. Oh, and Andre covered for Lucious with the cops, because apparently the eldest and dullest Lyon brother must have a plot despite being completely and totally irrelevant.
After typing all that, I feel like I should have hated this week's episode. Yet it all came together really nicely! This was easily the best installment of the show so far for me, on both a qualitative level and how much it entertained. I'm glad the show's quality is growing as the buzz around it increases. Do you agree that Empire is getting better?

Reid: It's getting more confident, at the very least, and that's a great sign. This episode was the first one where it didn't seem like Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, and company were straining for outrageousness. And yet, as your flurry of plot description above points out, a lot happened!
I wouldn't call "False Imposition" toned down, but this week felt like a show where the characters and world have been established, and now they're just living in it. One of the best things about Taraji P. Henson's performance is that she doesn't need to tear down scenery every week to sell it. All Cookie's best moments this week were little moments of attitude and inflection: how she wore that purple fur or the way she fingered Anika's pearls. The scene where she went to Titan's Nation of Islam mother to try to win favor was probably my favorite of the series so far, almost entirely because of the way Cookie was calculating every word and gesture to her advantage. It's a pleasure to watch Henson work, it really is. And if we can get subtle moments like that mixed and matched with lines of dialogue like "some mental artsy block brain fart whatever you having" (referring to Jamal, of course), then I think this show is finding exactly the balance it needs to sustain its fantastic buzz.
As for the brothers: You're right that Jamal didn't do much this week, though I will say I was greatly amused by the scene where we got to watch his creative process as he made music out of the sounds of a back alley. Music, Kevin, truly is all around us, if only we're willing to step outside our garden apartment in Bushwick to hear it. No, but seriously, I'm glad Jamal at least got a good hook out of his conviction that he's too good for a paycheck.
I liked the little development we got out of Andre (my least favorite sibling by far), mostly because it was brief. The flashback to toddler Andre hiding the gun in his LEGOs to keep Daddy safe from the cops was that perfect Lee Daniels blend of questionable taste and high drama within an honest-to-God character beat.
I still feel like we know the least about Hakeem as a person, but he's being used for plot purposes quite well. With Cookie now managing Tiana, Hakeem's more in the crossfire than ever, and while I can't bring myself to care about their triangle with Naomi "Mumbles" Campbell, I can at least have fun with Fox's sad little promotion for the Teen Choice Awards. Quite a coup for Empire to convince the Teen Choice Awards to hold their nomination concert inside a broom closet at Leviticus, I must say.

O'Keeffe: That performance looked sad and tired, which is a shame, because I'm gonna keep beating my drum that the music on this show is actually great. Hakeem and Tiana's song sounds like it could be a monster hit right now—it reminded me of "Masterpiece" from Beyond the Lights in that way. But what can you do when your staging area is rendered in miniature?
This week's episode was probably the most heavily involved in the actual business of hip-hop. I know there's been some criticism of how the show treats the industry (Joshua Alston makes good points on this theme over at The A.V. Club), but I honestly don't think it matters much. The show talked about authenticity in rap this week—real versus what reads as real. Ironically, Empire itself reads as real more than it actually is. The songs sound like they could be hits, there are obvious analogues to real-world figures, and the debates the characters have mirror similar discussions in the hip-hop community. But it gets the details about as right as Dallas did about oil, or Scandal does about Washington, or Revenge does about the Hamptons. Soap and melodrama aren't meant to be exacting parallels, even if they strive to get the mood of the setting right. It's why Cookie can be as over-the-top as she is: She's in an environment where camp can not only exist, but thrive.
I did leave out one detail in my plot description, because it ties to a question I have for you: Anika learned of Lucious's ALS. I liked this as a story beat; it helps reinforce the fact that though Lucious is attracted to Cookie, his love for Anika is real. Their bond is more than just her being a beautiful younger woman. It's nice to see Empire not taking a clear side there. But my question for you, now that one other character knows the secret, is this: If you had to pick today, four episodes into Empire's run, which of the Lyon sons do you think is fit to run the company?

Reid: You make a good point about Dallas and Scandal and getting the details right. The only difference is that the percentage of oil barons who watched Dallas and Washington power brokers who watch Scandal is (and was) much smaller than the percentage of people watching Empire who have a decent working knowledge of hip-hop.
The undercurrent of tone-deafness towards hip-hop doesn't bother me too much, both because, as you say, the music sounds authentic enough (thanks again, Timbaland), but also because I'm in this for the soap and not necessarily for the hip-hop. I can certainly sympathize with people who do come to the show with an expectation of some degree of authenticity and are not finding it, though. It's funny that we got Cookie in this episode hissing at Hakeem about not being as good a rapper as he wants to be because he hasn't lived the authentic street life that she and Lucious have. That theme has been a major undercurrent of the season so far. And yet ... club shootings and drive-bys? In 2015? They feel like the kind of flourishes you'd throw into a show about hip-hop if your familiarity with the genre stopped around the time of the Puff Daddy trial. Not that these things never happen, but they feel pretty outdated for a show going after the zeitgeist.
I loved that scene with Lucious and Anika, both because it humanized both characters, and also because I cannot stand the trope of the secret being kept long past the point where it makes any sense. Lucious's ALS is beginning to show, and since he couldn't exactly hide it from Anika, he came clean. I don't expect him to send out a press release any time soon, but keeping it from everyone in his life was going to stop making sense very soon. Good move.
As for the fate of Empire the business? With four episodes to go by, I think the company should go to Andre. He's boring. He's a jerk. He wears suits. He's got a wife who's as bad or worse than he is. These are the people who are fit to run our corporations.

O'Keeffe: Andre is the right answer, and I hate how much Andre is the right answer. The reason I ask is because the question being raised isn't who is the better artist, but who is fit to run the company. Will Hakeem grow out of his childish behavior as soon as Dad dies? Does Jamal even stand a chance since he angered his father? It seems like the answer is obvious—and yet I can't help but feel we'll be waiting far into season two until we find out.