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The soapy, limited hip-hop mythmaking of Fox's Empire

The soapy, limited hip-hop mythmaking of Fox's Empire


Lee Daniels' new drama series is an entertaining but dated vision of music industry success

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Chuck Hodes/FOX

The pilot for Lee Daniels' Shakespearean hip-hop soap Empire starts with record executive Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) in the studio, frustrated with one of his artists trying to lay down a track. She's just not giving it that pop, that spark it needs to take off. "I need you to sing like you are going to die tomorrow," Lucious says after the first failed take. The second doesn't hit either, so he enters the booth and asks her to remember her brother's murder: "How did it feel when you had to go identify his body?" And the third time's the charm — she nails it. Turning soulful singing into an equation — or an artist's adversity into a marketable product — and repeating it ad infinitum is the secret of Lucious' job.

Empire is about the "music industry," a phrase that will always be innately contradictory

Empire is about the "music industry," a phrase that will always be innately contradictory. Selling music is a business, one that lends itself to all kinds of dramatic intrigue on series like Nashville, Mozart In The Jungle, and Power. In its pilot, at least, Empire itself emphasizes commerce over art — Lucious' company is called Empire Enterprises, not Empire Records (a name that, admittedly, has already been taken). And it derives most of its dramatic tension from that end of the industry. Rather than focusing on any of the characters' difficulties with artistic inspiration for its own sake, Lucious' business has to remain profitable in a replicable fashion, at least if his plan to save the music industry by taking Empire public is to succeed.

That plan requires the ailing mogul (he's been recently diagnosed with ALS) to pick a new figurehead for the company — to determine which of his sons will succeed him. The three sons, all theoretically competitors for leadership of the company, are effectively positioned on a spectrum that posits an inverse relationship between business knowledge and charisma. Andre (Trai Byers), the eldest son, is an immensely intelligent, cold-blooded executive who's clearly the most qualified to run a company but largely expressionless, consigned to scheming with his Lady Macbeth-like wife. He's a representative of the increasingly dominant pure business approach to music, but Empire isn't just a series of calculations — Lucious tells Andre it has to remain a "celebrity-driven brand," which should therefore be run by a celebrity (who will somehow have time to run a publicly traded company while being a public figure).

Empire subscribes to a management philosophy that's more Jay Z than Lyor Cohen

That personality-fueled approach lends itself to a series as over-the-top in its dramatics as Empire aspires to be, and it subscribes to a management philosophy that's more Jay-Z (on whom Lucious is clearly based) than, say, Lyor Cohen. And it's why his first choice to lead the company is Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), his youngest son, a gifted hip-hop artist (you can tell because he uses the Migos flow at the end of the episode) who has never worked for anything and suffers from an alcohol problem. Hakeen has both the creativity and impulse control of a child, and is reminiscent of some of hip-hop's extremely talented enfant terribles — Chief Keef or Tyler The Creator circa 2010; acts whose "shocking" and "unstable" antics are part of how we understand their success. Though Keef's legal problems contribute to his image, they'll likely only remain useful so long as he can keep producing hits.

Then there's Jamal (Jussie Smollett), the middle son: both a talented, passionate songwriter and reasonably intelligent, put-together human being. But he's seemingly passive and unwilling to take charge of his career, or, as Lucious would have it, overcome his homosexuality. Lucious' is of the opinion that a gay artist — and, apparently, executive — can't sell to the black community or white kids. (Clearly Frank Ocean, on whom Jamal appears to be at least partially based, doesn't exist in the world of Empire.) Lucious is all about mass appeal, building a persona that can satisfy everyone at once. Jamal, meanwhile, is apparently largely successful in Brooklyn and San Francisco — a limited audience, but one indicative of an increasingly diversified pop music landscape where only four albums sell over a million copies. (Though Jamal’s story inevitably seems like it will find him making crossover hits.)

Lucious seems to think that he can identify intense individuality and sell it to the masses — his perspective on the intersection of art and commerce. When Hakeem lays down a track Jamal helped him write, Lucious is impressed, but downplays Jamal's contributions. He attributes success to "that monster in you, that genius." And in its pilot, Empire would seem to confirm Lucious' theory that the right people — the ones possessed by that monster — are paid for their emotional labor in artistic talent, or at least business success.

Clearly Frank Ocean doesn't exist in the world of Empire

At the heart of this is Lucious' own dark back story: we learn that he murdered several people early in his pre-record-industry criminal career, and his ex-wife Cookie (a stellar Taraji P. Henson), served a 30-year sentence after covering up for his involvement in the drug trade. In a way this is yet another retelling of the dominant narrative of the Successful Rapper. Jay Z's origin story has been told so many times it's now functionally a series of tropes for him to reference on phoned-in guest verses. Get Rich Or Die Tryin' is literally a movie dramatizing 50 Cent's beginnings. And Rick Ross built his career upon a completely fictionalized variation on this myth.

In practice, Lucious' approach — personal drama as a pre-requisite for becoming a star — is disastrous. As he suggests to his board, the music business has changed, from the model where one is rewarded for having a strong will and a difficult life, because of the internet. Because of illegal downloading, he says, it's now "impossible for disenfranchised kids growing up in the projects to overcome poverty the way that I did." He believes he can change this by taking the company public, and maintaining the same model for exchange between humanity (as art) and money. This is a deeply conservative myth (not to mention one that's afraid of the internet to a Sorkinesque degree) premised in the ability of Lucious and others like him to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The full picture here makes sense, but there's rot at the base.

Empire often looks like a relic from 2006

The biggest threat to Lucious' empire comes from Cookie, who notes that he was only able to obtain his wealth with an initial investment from criminal activity — something which has become just as much a part of that myth of his success. Lucious and Cookie's implication that those crimes were justified by his later success makes the entirety of Empire Enterprises a house of cards — one that demands a dark, soapy secret at the heart of substantial wealth. And it leaves Empire looking a bit like a relic from 2006.

There are certainly real-life artists in 2015 who one can easily manage being signed to Empire — Pusha T, YG, even Kendrick Lamar (whose Good Kid, M.A.A.d City is sort of an album-length version of this sort of narrative) — but there's more than enough diversity in the hip-hop landscape to support different approaches to making and selling music. The sort of niches Lucious rejects have been filled by everyone from Chance The Rapper to Swedish internet sensation Yung Lean. And that's not even including people who could have been birthed fully-formed from Andre's account book (Flo Rida, Big Sean, and, of course, Iggy Azalea). Lucious' view of what it takes for someone to succeed in hip-hop is dangerously narrow-minded, and reinforces unfortunate ideas about what kids should "have to" do to become artists. Let's hope Empire acknowledges his limitations as it builds.