‘Empire’ Review: Hip-Hop Musical Chairs with an Insane Soap Opera Twist

Stories like this—Game of Thrones, Dynasty, King Lear—are usually reserved for rich white people having the privilege and means to be cruel to each other. Enter Empire.

When it comes to shitty night soaps I am your girl. Petty, shade, and thirst are my favorite human “virtues” and the trifecta of any good series of “stories.” See: Olivia Pope. When it comes to Terrence Howard though, I am not your target. The monotonous vocal stylings of “that raspy light skin dude” fill me with the kind of anxious rage that causes me to yell immediately when I see him. This is what caused my roommate to ask if I was okay as I growled through the first scene in the pilot of Fox’s new drama Empire. I only had one answer: “This show is fucking nuts!”

In an email exchange a friend said many had repeated this same succinct review but they could never elaborate. Well, where do we start? First, it’s a show about a record label, specifically a rap label, and it shoots to be accurate aka insane. There’s a dude named Lucious—pronounced “Lucius” NOT “Luscious”—Lyon. (Just get over it.) He has three sons: let’s call them Don L. (oldest, Andre), Frank O. (Jamal), and Chris B. (youngest, Akeem). Blah blah, he’s sick/dying—and basically Diddy—so he needs a successor but, plot twist: he has a crazy ex-wife, fresh out of jail.

The first few moments of Empire are awkwardly uncomfortable as Howard stretches the limits of his tone to sound seemingly inspirational. It’s excruciating but anyone who has paid attention these past few years knows Taraji P. Henson is Howard’s on-screen soulmate. She always presents herself as the force by which he “drops the act” and gets to being the villainous “negro” we know (and enjoy) him being. From the moment she arrives on screen, the polarity of their causes makes Howard actually feel like the Puff Daddy we hope and fear exists behind closed doors.

Empire’s strength may be choosing to put some long taboo issues at the forefront of the plot. Cookie, Taraji’s brash queenpin, ex-con, mom-come-home, decides to manage their homosexual middle son Jamal, played by Mighty Ducks’ Jussie Smollett. Lucious goes with his youngest and most reckless, Akeem. While it’s clear the young men will be pawns, the homophobia of hip-hop takes up a large portion of this first act. All the cussin’ and fussin’ takes place around Jamal’s orientation. Lucious’ homophobia and disdain towards his son is routinely expressed in a way that makes it very real and unfortunately, lends to the least dramatic moments of the episode. Cookie’s fierce nurturing and acceptance are campy, but let’s not forget what we’re watching. Taraji manages to bring an equal measure of truth to the mother in her character.

While I admire the hint that this show is taking on such a topic, it’s still a dramatic story where irrational and sometimes impossible things will happen. There’s less likely a chance that the story presented will make sense in a way to make a difference in the real life convo but it is entertainment after all. In the end, I find it never fails to modernize even the most dramatic things. People watch night soaps because the genre allows them to believe in a world where people just react off their baser instincts. A world where you can actually curse your boss out, sleep with the person you shouldn’t even be looking at, and kill people who annoy you. To make it work almost everything else about these shows has to seem factual which is why many look like a weird Celebrity Sims.

Empire will be hate-watched and may set off some conversations on its way from fading from our minds. There’s a possibility for longevity in the fact that it really is a black night soap. (Guys it’s TERRENCE AND TARAJI DOING A DIDDY AND DEB ANTNEY BIT.) Usually these types of shows are reserved for really rich white people having the privilege and means to be really cruel to each other over passionate affairs with no meaning. The idea of making it about rich black people is not just a switch of shades on your TV, but to do it in the context of hip-hop and the black nouveau riche confronts way more issues. The sons represent the privileged new generation of black kids born into the 1 percent. Of course, there were super rich black kids before, but celebrity black children are a whole new world that we as a society are just getting used to.

Creator Lee Daniels, (The Butler, Monster’s Ball) does not strike me as a dude who would just casually toss these issues about. The plotline of homophobia in hip-hop may seem like bait but it is a something we rarely touch upon in depth in black cinema. That’s not to sound accusatory, black filmmakers have so much to discuss, but rather, a point to how new the idea of living openly is to our community and American society at large. Sure, we all love Frank Ocean but the truth is many still “other” him and fall prey to all sorts of tired-ass jokes about his predilections. Many young people are still shedding the ignorance of our parents.

Cookie and Lucious’s opposing feelings about their son don’t just touch upon them as savvy business people, but spotlight the bias and prejudice we subject gay black males to in their own homes and families. The use of slurs from both characters makes it clear just how “new” the idea of an openly gay son is even in this time. It’s a reality for people of many colors but in the black/hip-hop community it is especially imperative that we begin to accept change not just in words and theory but within our very own.

The show’s success doesn’t just depend on that plotline—Courtney Love is apparently a big part of the cast. But how long we care depends on how many graduation speeches Howard is asked to make, though his character is set to die very soon. Also, while the cursing had me double-checking Empire’s timeslot, it adds to its “realness” and saves us from Steel Larynx Howard.

We need something besides Love & Hip Hop. Sure, there are people who have no business even getting involved with this show, but if TV has proved anything it’s that we love to escape from reality. That fantasy, however, is still heavily regimented by all sorts of norms. I can think of worse things than watching those boundaries be destroyed dramatically once a week by some crazy negroes.