My bestie and I finally got around to having a conversation about the first three episodes of Empire the other day. While we both agreed that it's a great show, we also realized we love it for similar but ultimately different reasons. She's more interested in the manner that Empire is light, soapy fun, while I believe it has some really deep, meaningful, and important things to say about Hip Hop, being black in America, and homophobia in the black community. She doesn't disagree with me, but she does think they have a little more work to do before they can fully transcend their soapy trappings. For example, we were talking about Lucious' interview from the second episode and what it said about the show's stance on the importance of Hip Hop within urban black spaces. She pointed out that if this was the show's ultimate thesis, then they'd need to get someone who's actually from the streets to make it stick since all of Lucious' kids, at this point, are just second generation rich kids; none of them know the struggle. I pointed out that that's what Lucious is there for, to be that voice within the show, but perhaps the manner in which he seems to have sold out to corporate America works against him in that sense.
This conversation took place last Friday, and now here we have False Imposition and its introduction of Titan and showing us Jamal's new life in poverty since he's turning down his father's money and support, and we can see that Empire has every intention of doing just that. I wish I was humble enough to hate saying when I'm right, but I'm not. It's not that Titan's introduction is wonderfully well handled and nuanced, because like much of what Empire does it's a little rushed and messy, but his presence on the show says that they're ready to go into this other side of the industry. They're ready to showcase an artist who's story is more real and more honest than Jamal and Hakeem's can be. This should be the solidifying story for the show's overall points and messages about the importance and uses of Hip Hop within the proverbial streets. If Hakeem and Jamal aren't suited to showcase just how Hip Hop is a music about a struggle, then Titan certainly is.
But the question of Jamal is still in progress it seems. While it's true that through the first three episodes he wasn't ever capable of being a credible source on the struggle of the streets, his new living situation seems to suggest that that's about to change. I think Jamal's music thus far has always had depth and heart, but that's because he's always been capable of speaking from a place of a different kind of struggle. His struggle for acceptance from his father is a struggle every bit as worthy as the kind of struggle that Lucious and Hip Hop most value. But if there's an element of his music and his story that's long been lacking, it's this one, the fact that he's never really been hungry. Now he'll get the chance to experience first hand that hunger, that pain, that very specific fear of living in a lower class neighborhood. Questioning when and from where your next meal will be coming. Questioning if you'll make it home safe while walking the streets you live on at night. Fearing for your safety within the walls of your own home. These are all things Jamal's never had to experience before but he will now. And notice how the door to his creativity, closed and locked throughout all of the episode, seems to start cracking open when he walks outside of his closed door, when he allows himself to see and hear his surroundings for what they are. Watching him find the music in his immediate area was enthralling, and it really did make me think that Empire's willingness to give us a glimpse into that creative process could be bar none.
Not to be left out of the kids' story, we got the first flashback sequence for Andre this week. It was a simple scene of him singing with his dad and playing with his Legos, but it turned dark quickly when the police showed up to search Lucious' space and, without any coaching or prompting whatsoever, young Andre got up, grabbed his father's gun from its hiding place, and secreted it away amongst his create of Legos. And in that moment, just a bit more of Andre's backstory was filled in. He's the eldest son, the one most likely to lie to the authorities for his father even when he isn't fully sure what he's lying for or about. This is mirrored in the scene where the detective, still nosing around for answers to Bunkie's death, stops by the office and Andre easily lies and says that the he and his father were watching the fight when Bunkie was being killed. Does Andre know that Lucious had something to do with his uncle's death? There's no telling. Given that Lucious had him going to his mayoral contacts for information, it's possible that Andre at least suspects something. But whether he does or not, the fact of the matter is that he's more than ready and able to lie and give his father an alibi when he isn't even forced to do so. Compare that to Jamal's statements from last week about his obedience no longer being for sale, and you've got two characters who couldn't be more different.
But the real gem of this episode is the relationship between Lucious and Cookie. The moment where the two of them are talking about what life in prison can be like when you feel like you've been forgotten is probably the quietest moment Henson and Howard have shared so far, and it shines all the more for it. I enjoy watching the two of the yell and fight one another as much as the next guy, but there's a power and intensity to their quieter scenes that simply cannot be denied. But more than that, I love the way that Cookie is clearly looking out for Lucious and Lucious continues to go to bat for Cookie. They have a kind of frenemy vibe going for them laced with just enough sexual chemistry to keep everything interesting. The moment when Cookie tells Lucious she can help him to get Titan to the label but only if he's ready to reopen dealings with the Nation of Islam is truly touching. As is Lucious' scene tacking Hakeem to task for not respecting his mother.
If one thing's clear through the first 4 episodes of Empire, it's that the show's got its characters more or less down. I've also been saying for awhile now that I trust that the show knows where it's going and what it wants to say in the future. I'm hoping, and expecting, that the introduction of Titan is just a way for them to sure up that position a little bit more. We'll see how the series uses him in the weeks to come, but I'm still not sure there's any reason to be anything other than hopeful that this show's star should continue to be on the ascendant.
--Out has an interesting article about Lee Daniels seemingly opening Timbaland's eyes to his own homophobic prejudices by way of this show. You can find the article here. I don't know how much I buy all of it, to be honest, as it seems a bit like Daniels and Out trying hard to buy into the overall power of the series, but it's a fun read nonetheless.
--From the Hot Mess Pile: I think it's becoming slightly clearer that Empire might need a lesson in consistency. The episode opens with Hakeem making some slightly negative statements about Jamal's musical prospects when I can't recall him being anything but supportive in the past. And then later on in the episode hes back at Jamal's new place being encouraging again. I don't think it's the worst flip flop I've ever seen on TV, and I also don't think that Hakeem's earlier statements were too negative to get away with, but a lot of it felt unearned by the narrative. While it's probable that the competition element is heating up between them, and based on next week's preview it's about to officially come to a head, I just didn't feel like those opening moments were in keeping with what we'd seen prior.
--Between Tiana's seeming disinterest in finding out about Hakeem and Camilla, and Andre and Rhonda's interesting arrangement, the sexual politics of Empire are shaping up to be fascinating if not accurate. I don't have any evidence to back this up, but having spent a lot of time within the black community, I don't think open relationships are nearly as popular with our people as the show might be making it seem. It's still too early to say for sure that that's what they're going for, but we'll see.
--However, with that being said, I think Tiana's reaction to the news that Hakeem is cheating on her is about on par with the viewer's as well. Who cares?
--I'm not sure what to make of Lucious' interaction with his old record label exec. It's probably just another in a long line of complications, but I'll reserve judgement for awhile. At the expense of being a bit cliche though, if this guy (who happens to be Italian) has any mob connections, that could be juicy, soapy fun!
--Also in the not sure what to make of pile: Lucious' expression as Jamal leaves his office. Was he bemused by the mistake his son had just made in turning down the money, or was that respect? Howard plays that little smile for all it's worth.
--I found Anika's story this week to be interesting. It left me wondering how much of her inability is due to how Lucious sees and treats her? She is so seemingly out of place within this world, but she doesn’t lack for confidence. But the moment shit gets real with that drive by, Lucious wants to pull her out. Does this say more about him or about her?
--Also, should we even mention that drive by, or should we just shrug that off?