Empire: “The Outspoken King”

Empire further embraces its soap operatic nature in the second hour of the season, playing out like a mash up of various plotlines and deceits from Andre’s no-longer-working bipolar medication, Lucious’ club opening, an embarrassing viral video of Hakeem, Jamal maybe coming out, Becky finding out about Lucious’ condition plus the additions of Empire recording artists in Kid Fo-Fo and Tiana. There are longs lists of plotlines that populate this show, and by the end of this episode there are a few more to juggle. “The Outspoken King” is unwieldy in this respect, loading up so much for us to digest, and it doesn’t carry it as well as the pilot did. But my one gripe with the pilot was how little I knew about Lucious Lyon, and this episode does more for him than the last.In the opening of “The Outspoken King”, a newscaster suggests that Lucious is trying to make himself immortal by expanding his business. It’s a pretty on the nose assessment, though that newscaster doesn’t know about Lucious’ diagnosis. But it’s pretty clear Lucious has only one goal: to last forever. He takes immense pride in his glory days as a rapper being revisited, people remembering just how wonderful he is, almost as much as he enjoys people knowing how great he is in the present day. All of his ambitious plans to expand the business are to ensure its longevity, which makes his selection of one of his sons so vital. It may be too early to say so (and with only two episodes having aired it definitely is), but are any of Lucious’ sons really up to the task?

Jamal’s my favorite Lyon son, but he’s not willing to do whatever he has to. He’s more interested in being content, floating on a lazy river of good music and enjoying himself. Hakeem’s all bad behavior and bad choices. And I’m not even sure if Andre can run a business when he refuses to address his own medical condition by going to the doctor and getting his medication adjusted. There’s “grooming” that must be done, yes. These people have to be prepped for this job, but the only person prepping Andre is Rhonda, and Jamal and Hakeem stubbornly refuse Lucious and Cookie’s influence. And Hakeem’s moments of charm and grace are outnumbered by viral videos of him peeing in restaurants, and Jamal lacks either of his parents’ gritty determination to take what they deserve, but they’re Lucious’ and Cookie’s weapons in this fight. But it’s Jamal and Cookie with the most in common, both grasping for whatever they can of Empire.

When Cookie surprises Anika and Lucious at the Lyon mansion, and when she drives up in a taxi you can see just how surprised, impressed and indignant she is at missing out on all of this. Lucious and Cookie came from the same place, lived in the same world, and while it was Cookie who put in the cash and did the time to make Empire possible, she’s locked out from Lucious’ success and disrespected constantly. Lucious doesn’t bat an eye when one of his artists insults Cookie, hopping on the bandwagon himself and standing by while Anika laughs at her to the point where a tearful Cookie wonders what she ever did to deserve this kind of treatment. She didn’t do anything, and she knows it, and it’s this that makes her so adamant about making sure the same doesn’t happen to Jamal.

But Jamal doesn’t have his mother’s fearlessness (it’s hard to say if anyone does seeing as how no one’s willing to defy Lucious except her), and he’s passive enough to go with the flow when it comes to his life and career. He’s steadfast about his identity and sexuality, but when Lucious threatens to cut him off if he comes out, Jamal listens. Jamal’s been catching a lot of criticism from his parents for not being up to the challenge of establishing himself as an artist, and that may be true, but there’s something there. He’s not so salt of the earth that he’s unwilling to give up his lifestyle, but I doubt he backed out solely because of Lucious’ threat. He’d already said he planned on coming out, but on his own terms, and doing it as a stunt to take attention off Hakeem probably doesn’t qualify. But Jamal’s simplicity, his love of performing and his love of his brother, works to his advantage when he goes onstage with Hakeem after an episode spent with Lucious refusing to allow him to.

Hakeem and Jamal together is one of the show’s strongest elements, and by the episode’s end Lucious acknowledges that Cookie was right about them looking good together onstage. Hakeem and Jamal are great and all, but Empire‘s got an even better thing in Cookie and Lucious whose wealth of history comes through in this episode. These are two people who were once in love enough that Cookie sacrificed her freedom for Lucious’ ascent to greatness, and he followed her advice to the letter to get there and once rapped about being willing to kill a cop if he threatened her. Some of that affection still comes through in Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson’s chemistry and in the rare moments when their characters aren’t interacting as adversaries but as people who knew and loved each other a long time ago.

It looks to be this reason, their long history, that has Lucious keeping Cookie at such a distance. Whether it’s because he doesn’t appreciate the reminder of his unglorious beginning or the reminder that he didn’t do this all alone, he doesn’t want her involved (and he hasn’t told Anika about Cookie’s role in starting the business). And even though Cookies signed away her right to the business in the pilot, she’s still grasping for some acknowledgment of her worth. She tells Lucious to drop Kidd Fo-Fo, one of Empire’s artists whose lyrics inspired a shooting, not because of the controversy but because he’s not that good. And when Lucious is preparing to go on “white TV” it’s Cookie who tells him she liked him better as a thug, and it’s her recitation of lyrics of his that inspires him to explain to a news host the purpose of rap lyrics.

It takes a turn toward radical politics in this moment, which is kind of unexpected. Not because I didn’t think Empire had potential to discuss the oppression of black people and hip-hop’s role in confronting it, but because I didn’t expect it to be coming from Lucious. The Lucious we met in the pilot hardly seemed like the radical politician who would react with anger and fear when confronting Hakeem about his video, citing his concerns about what the cops may have done to him.  Empire seems so removed from reality in its operatics that this sudden grounding in the harsh reality of black people in America is both surprising and a relief.

In that same (weird) interview, Lucious mentions that he should probably be listening better to his children. The fact that Jamal is singing a song about telling the truth at this moment gives me some pause. Does Lucious really believe what he’s saying, and if he does then why doesn’t he take his own advice and start listening to his children? Probably because Lucious is a bit of a narcissist who’s obsessed with his own staying power. He leaps at the chance to leave a lasting and authentic impression of his real self in that interview but pushes against giving anyone else the same shot.

Stray Observations

  • Speaking of surprised I wonder what’s going to happen with Cookie and the feds, and I wonder who it is she’s expected to testify against.
  • I’m a little more interested in Andre and Rhonda now. They have one of those dark and twisty relationships that I can sometimes appreciate.
  • I’m glad someone told Lucious what a poor parent he is.
  • “Who’s Diana Ross?”
  • Anika’s lines are not as good as Cookie’s so I don’t know why we’re pretending that they’re all that cutting.
  • Tiana’s cute, but Hakeem is not on her level.

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