‘Empire’ Strikes it Rich

When I first heard news of a weekly series set in hip hop and R&B music industry with a predominately African American cast, I thought “meh.” Country has ABC’s Nashville; now Hip Hop has Empire on FOX. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that was so wrong.

With its slick and captivating pilot and enticing subsequent episodes, Empire provides a behind-the-scenes view of what it takes to make it in today’s bruising hip hop and soul music business. But creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong have resurrected the kind of lust and luxury TV soap operas that viewers used to schedule their lives around to watch with friends. Think Dallas or Dynasty.

Empire Entertainment is a major music (& fashion & sports management & lifestyle accouterments) company created by former drug dealer and rap artist turned CEO Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) and his then wife Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), who took the fall and served jail time for drug running that financed the early days of Lucious’ career and the company’s foundation.

Lucious and Cookie have three sons: eldest son, Andre Lyon (Trai Byers), Empire’s CFO who suffers bipolar disorder; middle son, Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett), talented, gay singer/songwriter who’s estranged from his homophobic father; and youngest son, Hakeem Lyon (Bryshere Y. Gray), Lucious’ favorite child and hip hop star on the rise.

Empire-Pilot-The Lyon's.jpg

Photo by Chuck Hodes – Courtesy of FOX

The plot has hints of Shakespeare’s King Lear with Lucious seeking to groom one of the sons to take over before Empire Entertainment goes to Wall Street with an upcoming IPO and before his fatal illness is revealed. But complications—and melodrama—arise as Cookie returns after 17 years in prison with plans to resume her role as one of the leaders of the company. Some violence, including a murder, also is in the mix. Daniels and Strong effectively employ sepia-toned flashbacks from the lean years of the past to illustrate relationships between the characters, especially Lucious and Cookie, in the present.

Empire also boasts a strong supporting cast of regular and recurring characters, including Naomi Campbell as Camilla, Hakeem’s older lover; Cuba Gooding Jr., as Dwayne “Puma” Robinson, a songwriter and former associate of Lucious and Cookie; Courtney Love, as Ella Dallas, a hard rock star on the Empire label; Gabourey Sidibe as Becky Williams, Lucious’ executive assistant; and Judd Nelson as Billy Beretti, Creedmoor Entertainment owner and Luscious’ nemesis.

But the strongest—and most enjoyable feature in Empire—is the music. The pilot opens with a soulful ballad, What is Love(by V. Bozeman’s Veronika), and closes with Smollett nailing Jamal’s plaintive Good Enough. Music and performances in the series continue to delight viewers with stirring Hop Hop numbers by Gray’s Hakeem and Serayah McNeill’s Tiana Brown, a rising Empire artist and Hakeem’s girlfriend.

If only the scripts were as strong as the music, Empire would be perfect. Cookie’s abrupt interruptions into Empire Entertainment’s Board of Directors occur too frequently. As do Hakeem’s temper tantrums. It would be nice to see more of Kaitlin Doubleday as Andre’s conniving, power-hungry wife, Rhonda Lyon.

Empire has dominated 9 to 10 viewing from the very start; and the audiences keep growing. The show’s growing numbers are impacting Black-ish in ABC’s 9:30 to 10 slot. But having two quality shows with predominately African American casts scheduled in prime-time viewing isn’t such a bad thing.

Empire airing Wednesdays on Fox, 9pm/8c

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