“Did you know there are 1.68 million black men being held under mass incarceration in America’s prison system today, right now?”
That’s the first line of dialogue spoken in Empire season two, from the hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz to a crowd of thousands in Central Park. Is this a signal of new intentions for Empire, whose wildly popular first season was driven by murders and affairs, psychological breakdowns and chart hits, double crossings and one-liners? Having a gay character come out and a few references to Barack Obama are one thing, but is Empire about to go full-on political, making like an Atlantic cover story?
Not quite. The next scene opens backstage with the playboy rapper Hakeem complaining to his mom, Cookie, that they’re “fronting” by holding a concert to free their patriarch, the rap mogul Lucious Lyon. Everyone knows that Lucious committed the murder he’s accused of. “We should be performing for the brothers and sisters that are innocent,” Hakeem says.
“You think I don’t know that, stupid?” Cookie snaps back. “This is about us taking the empire. Stay focused.”
Ah, right: Empire’s Empire, the record company Lucious and Cookie founded and whose ownership appears to be up for grabs. Anyone who watched the first season knows how this is going to go: At various points one or another member of the family will, often somewhat inexplicably, be announced as having the dominant position in the business, and the others will, somewhat inexplicably, line up either for or against the newly powerful person. In the two new episodes I’ve seen, the music—Timbaland homages to top 40 hip-hop and R&B—sounds slightly less corny than it did last season, but it’s still a mere metaphor for the larger battle of control. The same can be said of familial ties, of sex, of the media, all of which can serve up delicious twists and moving moments but mostly are just there to provide weight to add to one side or another of the power seesaw.