Rap Game King Lear

Empire is sloppy, politically incorrect, and very good.

Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson
Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon and Taraji P. Henson as Cookie in Empire.

Stills from Empire trailer (FOX Broadcasting)

Fox’s new hip-hop drama, the sporadically outstanding Empire, emphatically announces its audacity just before the end of its first episode. Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), a mother of three who has spent the last two decades in prison, looks at Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), the father of her children, a successful rapper turned music mogul, a man she took the fall for, her intimate and her enemy, and declares her mission.* “I want to show you a faggot really can run this company,” she growls, stating her intention to have Jamal (Jussie Smollett), their middle son and a gay musician, take over Lucious’ musical empire, whether he likes it or not.

This line of dialogue may sound crass, inappropriate, and unworthy of admiration, so let me back up. Empire, which premieres Wednesday, is the co-creation of director Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, who wrote the screenplay for Lee Daniels’ The Butler (and appeared on Buffy the Vampire Slayer). It features an almost entirely black cast and stars Howard as Lucious, a self-made alpha male who learns in the opening minutes of the pilot that he has a terminal illness. Motivated by his mortality, he decides it’s time to determine which of his three sons should inherit his record company. “What is this, King Lear?” asks Jamal, who looks, one episode in, to be the Cordelia of the bunch. The unstated answer is pretty much yes, with musical accompaniment overseen by Timbaland. The show may not have tragedy in mind, exactly, but Shakespeare knew his way around melodrama, too.

The eldest son, straight arrow Andre (Trai Byers), has always been devoted to his father’s company. He has an MBA from Stanford and a keen business sense, but he’s not a musician. Andre suspects that Lucious, who came up as a successful, innovative gangsta rapper before becoming a businessman, would prefer that his successor also have musical bona fides. If Andre can pit his two younger brothers, Jamal and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), musicians and close friends but temperamental opposites, against each other, maybe he can inherit the company—even if he’ll never spontaneously break into song at his father’s parties, as his younger siblings are wont to do. Andre schemes to have his parents each back one of his younger brothers, setting the stage for a kind of proxy war between Lucious and Cookie, acted out through Hakeem and Jamal’s burgeoning careers. Henson and Howard, who worked together on Hustle & Flow, have a natural, intense chemistry, and here a kind of riveting, campy competitiveness: The race to chew the most scenery has rarely been closer, or more knowingly engaged.

Hakeem, the youngest son, is a wild if talented rapper who drinks too much, chases too much tail, and is wracked by insecurities and prone to laziness. Despite all of this, he is the apple of his father’s eye, being the son who has fallen closest to the tree. But it’s the even more talented and steadier Jamal who is the character closest to the show’s (and Daniels’) heart. Jamal, who owes something to Frank Ocean, is not particularly interested in releasing another record; he is content to make and share his work on a much smaller scale. Out to his family, living with his boyfriend, he is still closeted to the public. Lucious can barely stand him, explicitly because of his homosexuality. Cookie, on the other hand, has always accepted Jamal, whom she has known was gay probably before he knew it himself. In a flashback, reportedly inspired by Daniels’ own childhood, a young Jamal walks into his parent’s living room wearing his mother’s high heels. Lucious goes into a rage, grabs his son and stuffs him in a garbage can. Cookie snatches him out, screaming and kicking at Lucious all the while.

Which brings us back to the line I mentioned at the start of this review. Cookie is no saint. Upon seeing Hakeem for the first time in years, she beats him with a broom handle. But she also loves Jamal and believes in his talent. “You really aren’t ashamed of him,” Lucious says to Cookie, with wonder in his voice. Daniels, in an interview with the New York Times, said he felt like Cookie had “earned” the right to say the word “faggot,” presumably because of her unconditional acceptance of Jamal, persnickety and demanding as it can be. Some viewers will surely disagree with that assertion. But agree or disagree, the word seems very much the one Cookie would use in that moment, even if most network TV would never permit her to. There is a bold, even cheeky verisimilitude to her declaration. Cookie, like Empire, doesn’t care about being polite or politically correct so much as being honest and fierce. She has cast in her lot with Jamal. The only way she can best Lucious and prove her own musical acumen is to make Jamal a star, and it’s exactly because she is operating in a homophobic environment that her triumph will be so sweet. Calling her son a “faggot” is a provocation, a declaration of fearlessness, a display of swagger.

Empire has a handful of such moments, moments that are invigoratingly free of anxiety about causing offense. Talking to Jamal at a club, Cookie says, “Only a bunch of white kids in Brooklyn and San Francisco even know who you are,” which Jamal seems content with. When he walks away, she shakes her head and says, “stupid sissy.” It’s a slur, and, in a way, it’s also true: Jamal is scared, and he doesn’t want to fight. She’s going to have to fight for him. Daniels, who won’t be directing the whole series, has a tremendous knack for exactly this sort of sloppy, realistic, utterly un-pious, off-hand moment. Right before Cookie makes her declaration to Lucious, serving notice that the two of them are “fixing to go to war,” the two are sitting around, sipping champagne, joking about her weave (“So what horse did you steal this from?” he asks) and about how James Brown is not, whatever she may claim, actually her uncle. The two have been dueling all episode, and are about to start again, but this moment of camaraderie and comfort feels natural: They have a long history, they respect each other, and, yes, they are also passionate people quick to fight.

I don’t want to overpraise Empire. Empire owes something to Nashville, another soap opera set in the world of the music business, and that show had a great pilot it has never come close to living up to. If Lucious and Cookie and Jamal’s dynamics seem unique and complex, other parts of the show are messy and flat. Andre and Jamal are little more than cardboard cutouts. Lucious is practically a mad-libs of black antihero clichés: the former drug dealer turned rapper turned mogul who still carries a glock and uses it. Most tendentious of all, perhaps, at this particular moment in the history of the music industry, is that Lucious is opting to take his record company public. Generally speaking, the arc of the soap opera is long, and it bends toward insanity. But, one episode in, Empire feels insane in exactly the right measure.

Correction, Jan. 4, 2015: This article originally misspelled Terrence Howard’s first name. (Return.)