“False Imposition” opens with a shot that looks upward at Lucious, as he grumbles in exasperation, “I’m gonna ask you one more time: What do you want?”
As the next shot reveals, Lucious is ranting to Hakeem, who jokes about getting some girls and making a music video. Unlike Jamal, he’s got a few new songs written and he figures, hey, fame? Why not? But the thing that’s bugging Lucious is that the desire for fame—or just for hot music video girls—isn’t an emotion that produces good music. Good comes from wanting. Isn’t there something, Lucious really demands, that you really want to say?
Empire‘s spent its first three episodes ragging on about authenticity, about being real. A good artist, in this show’s mind, has a way of connecting their desires to larger things. They feel in exceptional ways, and they can communicate that feeling. That’s the thing that makes Jamal’s music so good, that pulled Lucious out of poverty, that Hakeem has but can’t quite figure out how to tap. But this week, as Empire settled in for the season—and started to lay out a few longer arcs—the show also turned to ponder the difficulty of being truly authentic.
Though it was small, Jamal’s plot this week, in which he’s moved to Bushwick and is suffering from what Cookie deems a “mental artsy brain fart,” did the best job of capturing that problem. Jamal wants to make music on his own terms, but he’s lost his inspiration. In a fascinating scene, he wanders around the neighborhood, listening to people fight, have sex, gamble, and basically live their lives. On one hand, this is a perfect example of poverty tourism. Jamal’s a spoiled brat, and if he’s going to make music inspired by other people’s “misfortune,” he’s basically exploiting them. Jamal’s moment of inspiration feels real, but it’s also supposed to ring false. Is he moving closer to some “real” version of himself? Or is he just making up another persona?
The show feels richer for not resolving those questions, and Jamal’s plot then informs the rest of the drama spinning around the Lyon family. From Cookie to Lucious, they all spend their time demanding that each other be real, or true to themselves, or honest. But “False Imposition” makes clear is that those demands are nearly impossible to fulfill. Lucious’ anger is as much directed at Hakeem as it is at himself: Why can’t I know what I want? When did I lose the ability to know that?
Lucious, in typical bad-parenting style, tries to kickoff Hakeem’s artistic inspiration by denying his son tickets to see a show by Titan, a rap genius. Instead, Lucious gives his tickets to Becky, who happily goes to the show, where she witnesses Titan shoot another man in a gunfight. Titan’s quickly sent to jail.
Lucious and Anika then have a powwow over what to do about Titan. Titan’s a true genius—”the most authentic artist since Tupac,” Empire deals only in superlatives—but he’s also under contract with Billy Beretti at Creedmoor, the rival label that snatched up Kid Fo-Fo last week. Lucious really wants to sign Titan. At first, Anika doesn’t understand why, but then he reveals his ALS diagnosis. In one of Empire‘s trademark creepy-and-cute moments, Anika then tries to comfort Lucious by shaving him.
Meanwhile Cookie, the grand purveyor of truth, shade, and all that is right in the Empire universe, starts to build her own corner of the Empire label. This week, she pulls Tianna into her orbit. Tianna’s feeling like Anika’s too much of a suit, and she’s wants some real advice on her music. Cookie listens to Tianna’s sample, a moment which gives Taraji P. Henson the occasion to give Tianna a delicious, devilish look across her desk as she ponders, “Is this girl worth saving?” Luckily for Tianna, Cookie decides to sign her.
In Empire’s next board meeting, Cookie arrives in a purple boa and announces that she’ll be managing Tianna now, thank you. Anika’s flustered, but it doesn’t matter, there are bigger things to attend to. Lucious announces that he wants to sign Titan. Anika says she’ll go to jail to try to convince Titan to sign with Empire, which just makes Cookie laugh at the idea of Anika trying to win over someone as real as Titan.
NEXT: It’s tea time for Cookie, and Takeem for Hakeem…