Last week’s episode of Empire featured the biggest family shake-up since the attempted hostile takeover at the end of season one. In what can only be described as a ludicrously misguided attempt to get Hakeem’s (Bryshere Y. Gray) attention, Lucious (Terrence Howard) has his protégé Freda Gatz (Bre-z) perform a song titled “Shots Fired”, in which she insults Hakeem’s manhood, calling him “daddy’s little girl” and claiming she is the son Lucious always wanted. Of course, the song goes viral and makes its way to Hakeem, who promptly makes his own video challenging Freda to a rap battle. The stakes are huge, and Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) is quick to point them out. Not only is Hakeem battling Freda Gatz for his last name, he is also battling for the legitimacy of his fledgling label which, Cookie reminds him, will be dead in the water if he loses.
Meanwhile, Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is courting a Pepsi deal in the most nerve-wracking way possible. The deal depends on his turning out a banger track, but his efforts are constantly divided between two songs: the one Lucious wrote and the one Jamal’s been working on with Cookie. In an astounding move for a family in which no one directly confronts their interpersonal problems, Jamal brings both his mother and father together to blend their two different musical styles into one unique song. Of course, this is the Lyon family we’re talking about, and so Cookie and Lucious take this opportunity to wager their sons’ next albums on the outcome of the impending rap battle: if Hakeem wins, then Lyon Dynasty releases Jamal’s next album, and if Freda wins, then Empire gets Hakeem’s. Given Hakeem’s feelings about his father, it’s clear that Hakeem losing this battle is not an option.
We, of course, are treated to a fun training montage in which we see exactly what rap battle preparation looks like. Surrounded by their respective crews, Freda and Hakeem freestyle from topics given to them at random. To be honest, things don’t look good for Hakeem at this point. Freda has been performing in this context for years, Jamal reminds Hakeem. He won’t be able to win that way. What Hakeem does have on Freda is his history as a performer, Jamal says, and it’s by working the crowd and putting on a show that he’s going to win. Jamal’s advice is sage, but it’s always up in the air as to whether Hakeem’s going to take the good advice given to him.
The rap battle is clearly the central pleasure of the episode. Both Bre-Z and Bryshere Grey are talented emcees, and the lyrical content of their raps is significantly better than some of the show’s previous songs (Lucious, I am looking at your “Snitch Bitch” prison track, here). It’s nice too that these last few episodes have really let the hip-hop element of Empire breathe and take center stage. While Jamal may be more successful in the show’s universe, it’s Hakeem and Freda who are really commanding the audience’s attention these days. The rap battle is the culmination of what’s been brewing for a long time. Taking Jamal’s advice, Hakeem dances, cajoles, and raps the crowd into a frenzy, clearly winning the battle. Instead of accepting victory, however, he grabs a mic stand and smashes the neon sign with his name until it reads only “Hakeem”. “From now on,” he says to the room, “I go by Hakeem”.
Other things happened, but to be honest, Hakeem’s rejection of his patriarchal indebtedness was so epic that they seemed overshadowed. The Swifstream deal that Mimi (Marisa Tomei) and Lucious were working on last episode has gone through, but Lucious seems to have finally become aware that he’s probably being screwed by either Mimi, the Swiftstream CEO, or both. Laura (Jamila Velazquez) revealed to Hakeem that she’s a virgin — as though no one saw that one coming — and so the two are attempting to take it slow. Perhaps the only thing to rival the rap battle is the latest development in Anika’s (Grace Gealey) unfortunate story: she’s pregnant with Hakeem’s baby. When Hakeem tells her that he’s in love with Laura, Anika seems to really lose it. She keeps quiet about the pregnancy, gathering her things and leaving Hakeem’s. Yet, we see her at the close of the episode, disguised as one of Hakeem’s drivers, pulling away with Laura in the back seat.
I’ve been pretty honest in past reviews about my irritation at the show’s recent exploitation of Anika, but this week really goes above and beyond. Perhaps this wouldn’t be as bothersome if the show hadn’t traded in all its other assets for pat plot development and stock character types. One of the things that made Empire really stand out was its atypical treatment of sexuality and women. Of the powerful, talented women from season one, only Cookie remains; Tiana (Serayah) has been disappeared, and Anika has been turned into a stock “crazy bitch” type. All of the queer characters have also been written away over time, leaving only a single Jamal and Mimi, who represents an unabashed instance of the predatory power dyke trope. All of this is annoying and disappointing, but the invocation of a virginal “good girl” as the thing that inspires change in Hakeem is so regressive in its sexual politics that I wonder if I’m watching the right show.
We’re only about halfway through the show’s second season, and so there is still a lot of space within which the writers can work. I just hope that they recognize that the further they stray into melodramatic cliché, the less their show has to offer its audience.