“The Outspoken King” almost seems as if it was written with the specific goal of setting fire to the goodwill Empire built in its pilot. There’s plenty of lively music in it, but it’s difficult to hear it over the percussive rhythm of shoes dropping. If the pilot was the case for Empire, “The Outspoken King” is the case against it.
Empire sounded potentially disastrous from its earliest stages of development because the world of hip hop is an especially elusive target for a fictional television show, particularly one constrained by the rhythms and tropes of a nighttime soap. Hip hop values authenticity above all things, as Iggy Azalea would gladly attest. Hell, Kendrick Lamar would attest to that amid a low-level Twitter backlash over recent comments he made about the Ferguson protests, proof that when it comes to authenticity in the hip hop sphere, there’s literally zero room for error.
Those are problematic circumstances under which to create a nighttime soap, which will inevitably require conveniences, contrivances, and nuances tweaked to serve the story needs even if they aren’t necessarily accurate to the milieu. The pilot was able to dodge this problem because it had so much story to establish, it never had to climb down from its high perch. Now Empire is forced to get into the nitty-gritty, and “The Outspoken King” tempts its target audience to call bullshit again and again.
That doesn’t make it a terrible episode for everybody, but it makes it a terrible episode for Empire’s most engaged viewers: hip hop fans who, like me, are cautiously optimistic about a show like this being irresistible if executed correctly. But given the sheer amount of competition on the dial, Empire simply can’t afford to be a generically appealing nighttime soap. It has to nail both the broad strokes and the granular detail. “The Outspoken King” fails to do both.
The broad strokes were handled decently, in a script penned by co-creator Danny Strong and showrunner Ilene Chaiken. “The Outspoken King” does what it needs to do with regard to adding complications and moving pieces into place. Lucious and Cookie advance their respective positions in the escalating battle over the future of Empire Records, with Andre and Anika happily exacerbating the situation whenever possible. Hakeem and Jamal continue resisting their parents’ destructive overtures, defying their wishes by maintaining their fraternal bond even as forces conspire to tear them apart.
Meanwhile, Bunkie’s body turns up looking terrible enough to suggest the Hudson River is filled with apple cider vinegar. Becky discovers Lucious’ condition, while Andre is revealed to be suffering from his own medical condition in the form of bipolar disorder, which he’s loath to medicate. In the cliffhanger, Cookie chats up what looks like a federal investigator who wants her to testify before a grand jury, causing her to genuinely fear for her life in the character’s first moment of pure vulnerability.
Each of those choices is reasonable enough, and some are even intriguing, but it’s difficult to invest in where Empire ends up going with any of it when the episode is so deeply painful on an episodic level. Aside from the beats in the serialized story, literally every part of “The Outspoken King” is disposable if not outright corny, and if Empire can’t figure out in a hurry how to tell engaging episodic stories about Empire Records’ inner-workings, it’s going to crumble very, very quickly.
The episode’s main conflict is Lucious’ refusal to promote Jamal’s forthcoming album at the opening of his new nightclub, Leviticus, preferring to spotlight Hakeem instead. Well, guess what? That isn’t a bad idea, seeing as Jamal is gay and the name of the fucking club is LEVITICUS. What? Why? When? What? Why? Leviticus? Seriously? That sounds like a nightclub Stefon would name-drop on Saturday Night Live as one of those clubs that has everything, including human Rubik’s Cubes. (It’s that thing where midgets in color-coordinated outfits sit on modular furniture units and let you slide them around until all the colors align.)
Lucious wants to prop Hakeem up with a bigger artist, unfortunately Kidd Fo-Fo (ahem) isn’t available because he’s surrounded by controversy after being involved in a shooting at a mall. Protestors mob Empire to demand something or other, but I have to wonder if the protestors have been informed Lucious is poised to open a hip hop nightclub called Leviticus. In any event, Cookie tries unsuccessfully to use the media circus to bring publicity to Jamal’s coming out announcement in a craven attempt to capitalize on his sexuality. Making matters worse, Hakeem gets blitzed at a bar, relieves himself on the floor and tears into President Obama in a damaging viral video, placing more heat on the beleaguered Empire.
The problems with this are legion, but the biggest issue is that Empire feels completely untethered from time and space with regard to how it portrays the cultural nuances of how people perceive and scrutinize hip hop. It takes place in a universe in which Obama is the president, and Hakeem’s rant can go viral (though don’t bother asking Cookie or her new assistant Porsha what that means), but one in which Jamal’s sexuality is a major point of contention. While it’s been well established that Lucious is deeply homophobic, he’s also a businessman who presumably reads the trades, and should therefore know Frank Ocean doesn’t seem any worse for the wear. Lucious doesn’t have to approve of Jamal or want to promote his career, but he does have to have some kind of broader understanding of the industry he’s in. Homophobia in hip hop just ain’t what it used to be. This encapsulates the conundrum Empire will continue to face as it attempts to keep it real or keep it utterly fake, depending on what best serves the story from week-to-week
It’s clear Empire doesn’t have anything of value to say about hip hop’s music place in the culture right now, but it doesn’t need to have important or insightful points to make. It does have to bear some passing resemblance to the world it purports to portray, and the hip hop world in “The Outspoken King” is some kind of bizarre gumbo made out of odds and ends from ‘90s-era hip hop trend pieces. I can’t wait to see how they handle this East Coast versus West Coast feud I’ve been hearing so much about.
- I assume the Kidd Fo-Fo character is supposed to be based on Shyne, but who can tell? He gets dropped because his lyrics suck, because God knows without the lyrical acuity of, say, a Waka Flocka Flame, hip hop stardom is a fleeting goal. Ugh.
- For that matter, who is Kelly McGann supposed to be? That was a terrible interview.
- Andre, into his phone: “Figure out how to undermine Hakeem at Leviticus.” If this recording isn’t replayed for someone who wasn’t supposed to hear it, I’m going to declare it history’s stupidest use of a voice memo. “Drop off dry cleaning. Determine best plan for betraying brothers. Pick up fruit cocktail for that recipe on Pinterest.”
- Who is this Ta’Rhonda Jones who plays Cookie’s assistant? Even if she’s not related to SNL’s Leslie Jones, she is related to SNL’s Leslie Jones.