It’s hard not to feel bad for Freda Gatz, the hardscrabble up-and-coming rapper (played by real-life up-and-coming rapper Bre-Z). From what little we know about her, she’s lived a rough life, having grown up with a gangster father (whom she loves dearly but who clearly wasn’t the best role model) and having been dumped by her surrogate father, Lucious (who took her under his wing, only to cast her aside when he doesn’t need her to fulfill his creative ambitions any longer) in last week’s “The Tameness of the Wolf.” And in this week’s “Time Shall Unfold,” she catches yet another tough break: Jamal is forced to choose between having the hottest rapper in the game, a Nicki Minaj–like character named Stacy Run-Run—who has an exclusivity contract preventing other female rappers from appearing on the same album as her—and a relatively unknown Freda on his album. For now, at least, Freda has been let down yet again.
This latest obstacle serves to underline one thing: Freda is the most sympathetic character on Empire, a show that has virtually no sympathetic characters. She may be prone to some violent fits of rage—this week, for instance, she beats up a guy who unwittingly disses her late father, the “menacing” gangster Frank Gathers—but she’s not calculating in the way that Lucious, Cookie, Andre, or Rhonda are. So far, she’s proven to only desire two things in her life: people who she can trust and treat like family and respect in the music world. And in trying to achieve both, she does so the only way she knows—by simply being honest and open. When Jamal hems and haws while uncomfortably explaining his predicament with Stacy, her response is unabashedly straightforward; she gets it. “Ain’t no need to make promises. Just do you and win. Ain’t that the point of all this?”
It’s exactly that realness, her inability to dissemble (coupled with relative naiveté when presented with the opportunity to achieve her dreams), that makes it easy for her to become a pawn within the Lyon family’s neverending competition among one another. Lucious’ intentions with her are never not self-serving, even if his initial admiration for her talents is genuine. He wants to sign her to Gutter Life Records in part to make up for the fact that he had her dad killed in jail (at Cookie’s request) and so that he can regain his street cred with a tough rapper from the streets. He also uses her to hurt Hakeem by pitting them against one another (“I got three sons, and I identify more with you than any one of them,” he tells her). Cookie sets up the Stacy contract for Jamal specifically to get rid of Freda after discovering that she’s the daughter of Frank. And Jamal, for his part, swoops in to take advantage of Lucious’ inevitable abandonment and recruits her to be on his album once that break occurs. (To his credit, Jamal, who’s always reminding us that he’s “only about the music” soon realizes he made a mistake and that the creative chemistry he shares with Freda is far more important than having Stacy on his album.)
What makes her the most likable character on the show right now, though, is the fact that she is clearly the most talented “artist” within the world of Empire, even if none of the other characters within the world of Empire know it. It’s easy to root for her because Jamal and Hakeem benefit more from nepotism than talent. This isn’t to say that Freda is necessarily a great rapper—her rhymes, as with pretty much all lyrics on Empire, tend to be pretty rote—but her delivery and confidence are unyielding, showing off a dexterity that Hakeem could only ever dream of having. (See, for instance, her performance of the taunting diss track “Daddy’s Little Girl.”) Jamal may have a nice voice (and is probably the show’s second-most sympathetic character), but he’s more of a Jason Derulo than a standout performer—the songs may be catchy, but they could conceivably be sung by any male pop star. And let’s not even get started on the warbly rapping style of Lucious.
Yet somehow, Hakeem wins that baffling rap battle, in which he comes with prepared lyrics, to counter her ostensibly freestyled and more clever verses. And somehow everyone’s enamored with Lucious’ laughably bad “Boom Boom Boom Boom,” a song that she inspired and that she was originally featured on before he cut her out. Freda keeps dancing close to fame, but it remains elusive. In a way, this parallels the modern-day narrative that is so often trotted out when it comes to the music business: that the “real” and most talented artists are never as popular or celebrated as the frothier, “manufactured” ones. There are quite a few real-life examples one could point to to counter that argument (the commercial success of Kendrick Lamar comes immediately to mind), but this is Empire, a world where the music business is constructed as a fever dream, with a smidgen of reality mixed in with oodles of improbable occurrences. And if aligning with this overhyped narrative means we get a character like Freda, it seems worth it.