Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Empire would rather burn out than fade away

Illustration for article titled Empire would rather burn out than fade away

Like many successful pop songs, Empire has a great beat and terrible lyrics. Unlike most successful pop songs, its tempo is completely out of whack, and it’s glaringly obvious. It’s like if Adele’s “Hello” was performed at the speed of Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out Of Heaven.” It would feel very palpably like the song was supposed to be slower than it is. Empire’s music usually sounds great, but its story sounds like tinny triple-speed with chipmunk voices. “Be True” ended with Hakeem being kidnapped and tossed in a van, then Fox scheduled a week between episodes, which allowed Empire’s most potent cliffhanger of the season to hang in the air a bit longer. But for all that anticipation, the story fizzles out almost immediately. By the end of “A High Hope For A Low Heaven,” not only is Hakeem back home, he’s effectively worked through the trauma of having been kidnapped in the first place. That all happened in an hour of television that depicted a matter of, what, several days?

There’s no time to worry about Hakeem, no time to watch him disintegrate as hours turn into days, no opportunity for character development, or even suspense. Hakeem gets kidnapped, then gets released, has a couple emotional outbursts, then pulls it back together in time for a star-making performance alongside Mirage A Trois at Leviticus. There’s an even more dramatic evolution for Anika, who goes from being an inviable television character to a viable one and back again in a pair of scenes that added up to about three total minutes of screen time. Anika is first seen walking down the street talking to her mother on the phone, complaining about how she has nothing and no one. The dialogue might as well have gone like so: “Mom, you don’t understand. I was working for Empire and engaged to Lucious, but then I betrayed him and went to work for a direct competitor, and then I slept with my would-be son-in-law, who no longer has any interest in me. So now, my very existence as a character would make for a lively philosophical debate.” Hakeem gets free of the kidnappers and shares a kiss with Anika when he finds her, but when she shows up at his place later to check on him, he’s like, “Oh I didn’t mean to lead you on. Yours was the first place I stumbled on, and one of my eyes was busted, so…”

Hakeem’s kidnapping and subsequent reunion with Anika are just the latest Empire storylines to be fully broken down and scrapped for parts. Remember that whole squabble with Apex Satellite Radio? And the crucial deal derailed by Roxanne Ford? Well that’s apparently not important anymore. Vernon, whose murder hung like a specter over the first episodes of the season, has been totally neutralized. Porsha got fired for giving Cookie’s name after she got arrested for hopping a turnstile. But worry not, she’s back in Cookie’s employ and has even graduated to choreography assistant. Remember when losing Valentina was a brutal body blow to Lyon Dynasty? Well Valentina has been replaced with Laura and is now presumably somewhere within the bowels of Empire recording a sassy new single, not that you’d know it since no one has so much as mentioned her name since her defection. She belongs to The Empire now. It’s all so, so fast.

This insane tempo is why a show like Empire quickly wears out its welcome. Regardless of how you feel about a particular storyline—whether you like it or you don’t—you know it won’t be around long so you don’t get especially attached to it. It’s impossible to invest in a story where nothing that happens means anything or has a lasting or cumulative impact. The quick resolution of Hakeem’s kidnapping drives this point home, which is too bad for “Heaven,” which ends with another theoretically effective cliffhanger that probably won’t amount to much. The final scene reveals that Laz is affiliated with the street gang responsible for nabbing Hakeem, and it’s a well-executed reveal. But what does it even mean? Especially since Cookie wound up getting into bed with them when Laz makes the insane suggestion that he hire Hakeem’s assailants. And make no mistake, that is an absolutely insane suggestion.

A lot of Empire’s dialogue is pure exposition, which is normally a no-no, but it’s absolutely necessary because of how little this fictional world makes without someone explicitly breaking it down. Apparently in this world, record labels put street gangs on retainer to neutralize their threats. Because if there’s one thing you want, it’s to broadcast to the streets that acts of criminal aggression against your hip hop label will be met with swift and decisive compensation with generous paid time off, robust medical/dental benefits, and full tuition reimbursement for such career-relevant courses as Advanced Pistol Whipping. Why would that ever be a thing?

Empire doesn’t even care to follow its own logic. Remember when everyone was fretting about the FBI raid on Empire’s corporate office? How it would create damaging ripples in the stock market and was serious enough an issue that Jamal and Mimi thought Empire should avoid taking on new projects? Well as you’ll recall, Lucious settled all that by explaining that attention from law enforcement confers street cred, so the FBI raid would only work in the label’s favor. Fast-forward to the present, when it becomes a full blown crisis situation when Freda Gatz kicks a sexist heckler in the face during her performance at Leviticus. Listen, if some asshole was heckling Bahamadia circa ‘96 and she straight kicked his ass in the face, that would be the most gangsta move in history. Second, if the federal raid boosts Empire, why would the Leviticus incident hurt Freda? The Freda who is signed to a label that’s literally called Gutter Life Records? Isn’t this just good publicity?


While we’re on the subject of Gutter Life, which Andre apparently thinks is a reference to the gutters of Nazareth, there’s another crisis afoot when J-Poppa, a Gutter Life artist and Becky’s love interest, folds a Bible verse into his performance. Lucious and Becky freak out, because you definitely can’t assault people from the stage, but you also can’t make references to your Christian faith. Despite the fact that rappers do this literally all the time. But again, we’re not talking about the real world, we’re talking about Empire’s New York City, which follows rules that require extensive explanation. It’s a world in which a whole lot happens, and none of it makes any sense or adds up to anything, but it all happens really, really quickly.

Stray observations:

  • At this point, I’m starting to think Empire might have some sci-fi elements. Lucious talks about everyone coming to “The Empire” like he’s describing Widmore Island, the Overlook Hotel, or that space station from Event Horizon. I think this record label might, in fact, be a malevolent, sentient being that feeds on family betrayal and rappers’ tears. I’m waiting for the scene where Lucious is trying to sign a meek, insecure powerhouse singer—think a more immodest Anna Mae Bullock—and she asks why Lucious would choose her. “It wasn’t me who chose you,” he’ll say. “The Empire chose you.”
  • The only ongoing storyline that gets some attention here is Michael’s dalliance with Chase One, and honestly, the less said about that the better.
  • I see you Becky. Nice work.
  • I liked that Jamal song that sounded like Justin Timberlake doing a cover of “Space Oddity.”
  • Bahamadia, ladies and gentlemen.