In the opening moments of “The Outspoken King,” we get a glimpse of Lucious Lyon’s rap career, courtesy of the music video for his 2002 hit “What the DJ Spins.” In it, Lucious plays up the hip-hop side of himself, calling out the police, flirting with his music video girl, and generally raising hell. In the present, Lucious is living a life that looks nothing like the persona we see in the music video. He’s on his treadmill, living in a bougie suburban estate, slowly dying of a degenerative disease. Empire wears its symbolism like statement jewelry, so here’s the big, shining theme for the episode: Who is Lucious the person? And who is Lucious the brand?
In some ways, that’s not a thrilling question—Lucious is a standard issue male antihero, and his private life isn’t that interesting yet—but Empire has the chance to make the old new again by dealing explicitly with race. Lucious’ persona draws from a specific tradition of gangster rap (his 2002 video comes from an album called black-out, which sounds like a reference to Jay Z’s 2001 The Blueprint) that celebrates, and to a certain extent, exaggerates life in the hood for the benefit of other audiences, white or black. When Hakeem performs, he’s doing the same thing, even though he has no real connection to his father’s former world. It’s hard to establish a new niche, but it’s also easy to get trapped in that niche. In some ways, Empire—a high-profile, high-rated, network drama, with a cast that is nearly all black—is talking about itself here. Given the chance to tell stories about several black characters at once, it wants to celebrate some of the tropes you expect, while also expanding the breadth of the discussion.
But as much as “The Outspoken King” states its lofty ideals, it doesn’t always deliver on them. Lucious is so defined by his public persona that his “real” self only seems to come out in his brief, private conversations with Cookie. Cookie’s antics are thrilling to watch—praise Taraji—but she’s also veering toward dangerously boring crime subplot. We’ll get to the swirling montage in which Cookie confronts Lucious on live TV, while Jamal sings “everyone has a closet” back at his apartment (it’s a joy to watch, because Empire refuses to go in for subtlety), but let’s just say that the show’s both fascinated and distracted by its characters’ own personas. Do we know Lucious the person by the end of the episode? Not really. But we do see how exhausting it is to be Lucious the brand.
Anyway, Lucious’ mid-morning meditation on fame, death, etc. gets interrupted by Cookie, who rolls up to his mansion for breakfast and a chat about their sons’ careers. Lucious booked Hakeem to play at the opening of his new club, Leviticus (was “Genesis” too on the nose?), and Cookie wants Jamal to perform as well. Anika, Lucious’ girlfriend, agrees with him, which really pisses Cookie off, so she starts to make plans for Old Testament-level revenge the night of Leviticus’ opening. She heads over to Jamal’s apartment. She wants him to perform, and to come out, that same night. It’s the perfect publicity stunt.
While Cookie tries to enlist Jamal, Lucious deals with surprising news. There’s been a recent shooting at a mall and the gunman cited Kid FoFo, a rapper on the Empire label, as his inspiration. The media have swung into hot take mode and FoFo’s lyrics, which detail violence against the police, are getting criticized. Kid FoFo refuses to apologize, but Lucious realizes that the crisis makes for a good opportunity to leverage FoFo into playing backup for Hakeem at the opening of Leviticus—like Diana Ross did for the Jackson 5. The plan seems to be working, until Cookie interrupts the meeting at the Empire offices, and insults FoFo’s lyrics. Still, FoFo’s on contract, and Lucious refuses to listen to Cookie and drop him from the label—even after she throws her shoe at him.
Aside from the Kid FoFo-shoe incident, there’s another loose screw in Lucious’ hype machine: Hakeem himself. Hakeem’s not that interested in doing interviews, or being famous at all, really, instead, he wants to get with Tianna, the doe-eyed hip-hop star from the recording studio next door. Tianna’s rehearsing a number with a bunch of ballerinas, which is probably supposed to evoke Fame or Kanye’s dreamland minus Kanye, but which feels more like an alternate reality “Shake It Off.” Anyway, Tianna’s personality falls in the “Black Space” segment of the T-Swift scale, so as soon as Hakeem tries to flirt with her, she tells him to “get his phony rich ass out of here.”
Finally, we’ve got to check in with Andre and his evil white wife Rhonda (a.k.a. the notorious EWW). Andre’s making voice memos to himself, as one does, when Rhonda tells him he needs to recalibrate his meds. Andre, she reveals, is bipolar, and he’s been acting especially weird recently (coming up with ways to tear your family apart can be stressful). Andre passes it off, but Rhonda’s in control here. “Your life is mine,” she reminds him, as she buttons up a bib before giving him a bl– job. Empire is doing the most with network TV.
NEXT: Hakeem spirals, Rhonda plots, Jamal has feelings