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History of TV: ‘Empire’ State of Mind

February 18, 2021
4 min read time

Everything about Fox’s Empire feels at once familiar and totally, brazenly new. The musical drama aired from 2015 to just last year, but in light of 2020 being so... 2020, it already feels like the show ended a lifetime ago. Empire’s popularity snowballed right from the beginning — the soap opera-ish excitement, the incredible acting and even better musical talents by the cast, the wardrobe. Oh, did I mention the music?

Oh, that music

The music pulls it all together. Written specifically for the show, the first season’s soundtrack was headed by executive music producer Timbaland, before shifting into more hands. From the second you hear Veronika Bozeman belting out “What is Love” and we are thrust into the eye of the storm that is the Lyon dynasty, you know to buckle up because the momentum never slows.

“I need you to sing like you are going to die tomorrow,” Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) tells Bozeman. Then we see why through flashback, in a dour hospital scene. When he still doesn’t get what he wants, Lucious seemingly seductively whispers into Bozeman’s ear about identifying her brother’s dead body. As a music producer, he gets the sound he wants. As a human... we watch that play out over six seasons and we also immediately grasp how he operates on a deeper level. This man is ruthless.

The soundtrack is so organically woven into the show that each ballad tells us exactly what to feel about the moment, the characters performing, and about that episode’s larger thematic narrative. The performances also provide an anchor for the many flashbacks that fill us in right when we’ve just about given up wondering what’s happening in the present-day plot. While the use of flashbacks can be a writer’s greatest nemesis, in Empire it is so seamlessly cut in that plot and music weave together for a complete picture.

Family dynamics

When we get the complete picture of middle child Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett) and his father, it’s during Jamal’s performance of “Good Enough” near the end of the pilot. We’re shown the end to a previous flashback that cements Lucious’ previously barely-below-the-surface disdain for Jamal’s sexuality: he puts his young son in the trash can for wearing his mother’s clothes. It’s a truly horrific moment that is brought to aching light in the performance.

Jamal has prevailed despite his father’s lack of love, depicted as self-assured and adored by those around him — including his baby brother Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray). When the two launch into an impromptu “performance” aboard their father’s yacht in the opening minutes of the pilot, the camaraderie is tangible. You just know that’s going to be tested as soon as possible because why would a TV show let anyone be happy in their relationships? And Empire’s parallels to Shakespeare’s “King Lear” are widely known.

Creators Lee Daniels (Precious, Monster’s Ball, The Butler) and Danny Strong (The Butler, Billions, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) put it right in the pilot: Lucious tells his three sons that’s he’s only picking one of them. “One of you is going to have to prove himself. You’re competing against one another to take over this great billion-dollar company that I’ve created,” he says. You can just feel the incredulity emanating from his oldest son Andre (Trai Byers), who’s been established as the business-minded son, there for his father and the company at every turn. Now he’s being pitted against his brothers? “What is this, we 'King Lear' now?” Jamal quips. But it really, really is. Between the sibling rivalry, guilt-ridden murders, star-crossed lovers, power grabs and the all-out emotional and business wars, it’s Shakespearean to the very core of this hip-hop empire.

Yet, still something all its own. Credit the music or credit the fact that executive producer-director-writer Daniels put a lot of his own life into crafting the characters, Empire doesn’t make you mind that you’ve seen a lot of these themes before because of how it’s presented. That is the most important takeaway for writers: everyone can tell the same story about the same themes, but they’ll never actually be the same because no one can live your life for you and thus have the exact same point of view.

The rotating POV of Empire’s ensemble, in this writer’s opinion, all orbit around the sun goddess that is Cookie, played by the sensational Taraji P. Henson. The Oscar® nominee won a Golden Globe® for her performance in Empire, and from the moment she shows up onscreen it’s so very apparent this woman has got it all. Cookie’s motivations are slowly revealed layer by layer, but the one unwavering sure bet is her fierce motherly love for her boys. While no one escapes without fault in Empire, that’s what makes the Lyon family so very real despite their billion-dollar lifestyle trappings  there’s love, and then there’s the gray area.

Building a world

The music world can seem larger than life to the uninitiated and outsider fans. And Empire doesn’t chintz on any of those trappings, from yachts to clubs, a fantastic wardrobe and a talented roster of musical guest stars (Alicia Keys, Lenny Kravitz, Ludacris and Mariah Carey among others all get caught up in the Lyon family drama), the show thrusts you into a lifestyle unlike that of, well, most of us I’d hazard to guess.

Grounding it all are Lucious’ beginnings as a kid on the streets of Philadelphia, selling drugs to support himself while he rapped for fun. They are the foundation of his transformation from Dwight Walker into Lucious Lyon and the whole musical empire he’s built. The friends who helped him rise play frequently into the plot, most often as his nemeses, as it feels like Lucious never fully lets go of the feeling that he alone must fight for his own survival. He’s often got the best of intentions, but it’s his methods that keep it interesting (and the seasons rolling).

In retrospect

The whole Lyon family is so damn talented. They can all sing and those moments are my favorite to watch: in the booth, on the yacht, onstage — when the Lyons sing together, you just get lost in the emotion of it all, like any good storytelling technique. Empire finds its best way to express the message through music, and we’re the better off for it.

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