Let’s face it: You’re not reading this recap because you want a lofty deconstruction of the symbolism and philosophy behind Empire. You’re reading because you just watched the latest over-the-top episode and you thought, “What the hell was that?!?” as a billion GIFs exploded in your brain. So every week, instead of a traditional recap, we’ll give you the latest edition of Empire: How Crazy/Awesome Was It?, in which we rate this week’s episode in terms of relative genius/insanity. Add your own ratings in the comments below.
LUCIOUS, COOKIE, AND JAMAL LYON
How crazy/awesome were they? Crazy enough to treat their own family members as something you can buy and sell, just like…a particular soft drink that I’m suddenly craving right now
What the heck happened with them this week? They made a Pepsi commercial and disguised it as an Empire episode.
Look, it’s not surprising that Empire took product placement to a whole new level this week. It’s a show about hip-hop, and hip-hop has never been shy about pushing popular drinks, whether it’s Cristal or Courvoisier. Shouting out name brands is natural for the Lyons’ industry, and it’s also nothing new for the show. We already know that Lincoln Motor Co. is an official sponsor of Empire, which might explain why every other episode features someone slowly rolling down the window of a fancy black car to have a conversation with someone who’s walking down the street. (Can’t these people just text each other? It would save a lot of gas.) So why did it suddenly feel a little heavy-handed for Empire to devote most of the hour to Jamal writing a song for Pepsi, while Pepsi’s Twitter account quoted Cookie’s best lines and Pepsi’s new sweetheart Tori Kelly performed what looked like a scene from Empire during the commercial breaks? Maybe it’s because the story wasn’t quite strong enough to do anything more than get those Joy of Pepsi™ ba-ba-bas stuck in our heads.
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What the episode does establish is something we’ve known about Cookie and Lucious all along: They’re business partners, not parents, just like Hakeem says. They can’t stop fighting over which one of them will help Jamal write the hit he needs to become the new face of Pepsi. They’re even prepared to barter Jamal and Hakeem’s talents for the sake of their labels. (More on that later.) Love and money are all tangled up in this family. So when Lucious catches Jamal working with Cookie, Jamal comes up with a semi-poetic plan: Just as his own DNA is a mix of Cookie and Lucious, so his song will be, too. Cut to Jamal leading a full orchestra, melding Cookie’s melody with Lucious’s beat, and speaking those four little words you never thought you’d hear on Empire: “Your flutes are beautiful!” Once his creation is finished, he sings “Ready to Go” for all the execs with extra flair, flipping his silk trenchcoat, and hopping around stage in an adorably spazzy little dance. What Lucious says about Cookie’s melody is exactly what you might say about Jamal’s performance: “It’s cute. Cute in a sexy kind of cute.” Jamal scores the deal with Pepsi, which is also a boon for the show, considering that Pepsi’s own Alicia Keys will make a cameo soon. I’d complain about the blatant synergy of advertising and plot, but I can’t talk with all of this sweet, deliciously carbonated beverage in my mouth.
Most tweetable quote: “This ain’t no Disney Channel. There ain’t no happy ending.” —Cookie to Lucious and Jamal
Most GIF-worthy moment: Jamal conducting about 5 billion different types of bongo drums while Cookie and Lucious look on proudly
HAKEEM LYON AND FREDA GATZ
How crazy/awesome were they? Crazy enough to compete for favorite-child status with Lucious, who’d never even win the title of World’s Okay-est Dad
What the heck happened with them this week? They fought in a rap battle so old-school, Jackée Harry claimed it gave her “early 90s vibes.”
Encouraged by Lucious, Freda hits the youngest Lyon with a song called “Shots Fired.” Nevertheless, she slays Keem in the diss track, claiming that he’s “just Daddy’s little girl.” Her performance goes viral, interrupting Hakeem just as he’s about to take Laura’s virginity. Freda’s video enrages Hakeem, who earns hearts on social media when he announces that he’ll “show the world who the real Lyon is.” (Is Periscope a sponsor of Empire, too?) Cookie’s mad that Hakeem let Lucious sucker him into a battle, making him look like “Empire’s bitch,” which doesn’t make much sense. As the savvy head of a start-up label, she should know that any conflict between her son and an established label’s talent could only make for good press. And it will make for even better tabloid headlines once Freda finds out what really happened to her dad.
For now, though, it just makes for a fun rap battle that’s the highlight of the episode, complete with neon signs advertising each side’s name. The stakes are high, too: The winner takes the Lyon surname. Also, if Hakeem wins, Cookie gets to sign Jamal to Lyon Dynasty. If Freda wins, Lucious gets Hakeem back on Empire. Freda gets most of the best lines (“Tell Cookie get the milk, her baby keep on cryin’!”), but Hakeem ultimately wins over the crowd, whose chanting stirs him into such a frenzy that he ends up smashing the “Lyon” on his sign. From now on, he’ll just go by Hakeem so that he doesn’t have to be associated with his dad, who invented the name Lyon when he was a homeless teenager, waking up beside marble lion statues. (So a flashback suggests.) Lucious handles it as well as could be expected: “Congrats, No Name,” he tells Hakeem. It sounds like the perfect title for Keem’s next hit song.
Most tweetable quote: “I’m gonna make that bitch my bitch.” —Hakeem on Freda
Most GIF-worthy moment: Hakeem smashing the neon “Lyon”
NEXT: How crazy is Anika?