Taraji P. Henson, Grace Gealey, Serayah

“False Imposition” is scatterbrained and suffers from a lack of structure, but many of its individual pieces are intriguing. That makes it superior to “The Outspoken King,” but Empire still has some of the same issues with the granular details, and while those issues are becoming easier to swallow, it would be preferable if they didn’t exist. It all comes down to the authenticity.

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Lucious Lyon is acutely aware, as is everyone else in Empire Records, of how important authenticity is to hip hop. Of course, it doesn’t have to be actual authenticity, which is why Rick Ross still has a career despite the revelation of his past as a Florida correctional officer. But there’s constant image control, not as means of purifying the art form, but in the interest of protecting the product. Empire goes wrong when it conflates the business of hip hop with the culture of hip hop, and “False Imposition” does it with the story of Lucious’ quest to sign Titan, the “most authentic rapper since Tupac” who is “outselling every other genre” despite his deep involvement with The Fruit Of Islam. Mmkay.

Without ticking through all the issues with this, I do want to reiterate that it’s kind of a big deal how fast-and-loose Empire plays with these kinds of ideas. There’s no good reason for the show to even play with the nuances, especially if the result is this muddled. My nitpicking might seem like overkill to non-hip hop fans, but trust me, this show can be irritating as hell. Imagine a television show about the inner-workings of a Manhattan fine-dining establishment. Now imagine there’s a scene in which a character appears, and another character says “That’s Gerald Lemieux, the hottest up-and-coming chef in the city. The Times raved about his garlic molé salmon ravioli a la mode.” That would be irritating, no?

So, once again, Empire tried an episodic story steeped in hip hop culture and veered away from what it does best. Luckily, “False Imposition” has so many elements, there wasn’t much time to fixate on one particular flaw. There was a lot of interesting stuff here, and plenty of opportunities for the characters to show vulnerability. Andre, who is still a bit of a cipher, gets a flashback with Lucious that better defines their relationship. Andre may not be able to communicate with his father on a musical level—though that wasn’t a problem when Andre was a kid—but Andre and Lucious bonded through secrets. He gets an opportunity to cover for Lucious again when the detective investigating Bunkie’s murder shows up looking for an alibi. It’ll be fun to see how much Andre has put together about Bunkie’s murder.

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Lucious got to show off some bruises in his first face-to-face meeting with Billy Baretti, the head of Creedmore Records, which is now home to Kidd Fo-Fo. Lucious’ confrontation with Billy isn’t a well-crafted scene, thanks to some clunky expositional dialogue in which Lucious lays out the history between the characters solely for the audience’s benefit. It was strong nonetheless, as a reminder of the struggles Lucious had to overcome to get to where he is. There isn’t much gather about who Baretti is from the brief interaction, but the rivalry between Empire and Creedmore is a strong idea.

Then there’s Cookie, Empire’s most polarizing character. This was news to me after I watched the pilot and expected to exclusively have conversations about how amazing the character is and how good Taraji P. Henson is in it. There have been quite a number of those conversations, but it’s not uncommon to encounter those less enamored of Cookie. I didn’t understand the complaints initially, but “False Imposition” made them a little clearer for me. There’s no fundamental problem with the character—she’s far too nuanced to write off as a generic “sassy black woman”—but the writers need to fine tune the way they deploy Cookie.

Take for example Cookie’s pathological need to disrupt people’s meetings, which she’s doing as much as 34 times per episode now. The blustery approach was the right play for Cookie’s introduction to the show. She was returning to Empire Records after 17 years in exile and solely focused on upending Lucious’ world, and that provided plenty of excuses for Cookie to kick open the boardroom doors and unleash a barrage of bon mots. But that habit has lost its charm, and not only because it veers closer to cuteness than Empire should go.

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It’s also because such behavior, over an extended period, feels out of character. The writers are trying to have it both ways with Cookie, portraying her both as a shrewd businesswoman as well as a prison-hardened wild card. If the idea is that Cookie is an intelligent tactician lacking refinement, Empire has to show how her boorish behavior undermines her endeavors within the company. If the idea is that she’s crazy like a fox, the show has to find a way to indicate there’s a method to the madness. At this point, Cookie is not unlike the stock character in ‘80s buddy-cop movies, with the rogue cop who plays by his own rules but gets results. In an environment as delicate and fraught with peril as a massive record company, Cookie would have to learn to choose her battles, or at least fight them in more inventive ways.

The writers do appear to be using Cookie this way as part of a broader scheme to rekindle the romantic sparks with Lucious, but that’s a problem unto itself. Empire is going out of its way to sell the audience on a reunion it bought into weeks ago. It’s never been a matter of if Cookie and Lucious will hook up, it’s a matter of when. Henson and Terrence Howard already have so much history and chemistry, their scenes are naturally imbued with familiarity and sexual tension and it’s jarring to see so much effort put into foreshadowing a foregone conclusion.

Empire has fallen into a trap that usually snares romantic comedies, the one in which the protagonist’s romantic rival is depicted as meritless to highlight who is really meant to be together. The delicate dance between Lucious and Cookie would be enhanced if Anika seemed like a legitimate threat to Cookie on any level, but she still doesn’t. Besides a command of conversational Swedish, it’s not clear what she has that Cookie lacks. Especially when wardrobe is super-gluing dresses onto Henson’s pronounced curves.

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Stray observations:

  • Tiana catches Hakeem in a hot tub with Camilla—sorry Takeem ‘shippers—but only cares about the relationship to the extent it impacts her career. Meanwhile, Camilla’s only concern is that they got caught. Between these two and Becky last week, it’s not entirely clear what Empire is trying to say about these women’s attitudes toward sex and fidelity.
  • Jamal lives in Brooklyn now. He went outside for inspiration and wound up acting out the hilarious epilogue of Michael Jackson’s “Black Or White” video. So that was fun.
  • Tiana and Hakeem’s “Dangerous” is the first Empire song that sounds radio-ready. That’s probably because it’s the most traditionally Timbaland-sounding song that’s been on the show. Specifically, “Dangerous” sounds like a bonus track from Nelly Furtado’s Loose.
  • Cookie to Lucious: “The Nation killed your father.” WHAT?! If anyone needs me, I’ll be lurking on Nation of Islam message boards for the next three days.

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