Lucious and Cookie fight over a PR crisis. Jamal and Hakeem try to stay friends.

By Jackson McHenry
Updated January 15, 2015 at 03:00 AM EST
Chuck Hodes/Fox

Empire

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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, whichsounds 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

Did you forget about the murder plot from last week’s episode? Because it’s still frustrating and it still exists! Bunkie’s body turns up, and Vernon manages to identify him, which means its time for the whole family to get together and really think about what they’ve done. Hakeem takes the news especially badly—Bunkie raised him in Cookie’s absence—and he lashes out at Cookie’s attempts to connect with him at the family gathering before retreating to go smoke pot in his room with Jamal.

Things take a turn for the worse when Hakeem gets drunk at a fancy restaurant with his friends a few scenes later. There, Hakeem starts putting on a hardcore persona for his friends, referring to himself as “the original rap gangster” and then calling out all the people who have wronged him: Tianna, his dad, and Barack Obama, who he calls a “sell out.” Then he pees in the restaurant.

Hakeem’s outburst goes viral, which makes Lucious furious. Nobody says bad things about Obama in the Lyon household. But even though it wasn’t a publicity stunt, Hakeem’s video works. Press RSVPs for the opening night at Leviticus have quadrupled, Anika tells Lucious. The Kid FoFo story, on the other hand, has become toxic. The press have picked it up nationally and Anika suggests putting out a statement. But Lucious decides to take it one step further. He’s going to apologize for FoFo’s language on TV.

In the best news of the evening, Rhonda’s job (stylist? fashion photographer?) involves directing shirtless men in photo shoots, which is just what she’s doing when Cookie arrives to ask for help. Rhonda offers up a publicist, Dominique, who quickly gets to work organizing Jamal’s big coming out press conference. “If you’re just using me for my contacts to stage some sort of performance, I’ll kill Rhonda,” Dominique says to Cookie. Rhonda looks back from her collection of hot men, “I know you will.”

But as much as Rhonda’s life is on the line, Jamal’s press conference is not to be. After hearing about Jamal’s plans, Lucious gives his son a talking to. If Jamal comes out, Lucious says, dad’s going to cut him off. So when Cookie arrives outside Leviticus with Dominique, some journalists, and her cheetah print hat for the big announcement, Jamal is nowhere to be seen.

Nearly all the plots in “The Outspoken King” collide as Lucious goes on TV to apologize for Kid FoFo. Lucious starts off by apologizing, but Cookie manages to sabotage his interview by getting a reporter at Jamal’s planned press conference to let her call in to the interview; she then quotes Lucious’ most gangster lyrics back at him. As Lucious tries to collect his thoughts, Empire segues into a montage, played to the tune of Jamal’s song about coming out and over shots of Lucius’ early music career. The scene’s almost too preachy for its own good—like Aaron Sorkin if he cared about things other than difficult white men—but it lands on one of Empire‘s central concerns: How much do you have to sacrifice, to disavow your own culture, in order to sell that culture? Lucious claims he’s letting his culture tell its stories by promoting black representation in music—”our music is more of a narration of an oppressed people,” he says—but he’s also stifling some of that story. The music Lucious sells doesn’t tell the stories of queer black people or of black people who seem too threatening for white audiences. To sell his brand, he edits and apologizes for his own experience.

Everyone (Anika, Kid FoFo, Lucious, Andre) congratulates Lucious for his good work after his interview and shares in a happy walk to the elevator together. Then, Cookie arrives in the elevator. Kid FoFo mouths off to her. Cookie insults his lyrics. Lucious doesn’t defend Cookie, so she goes full Solange and attacks FoFo. After she leaves in anger, Lucious cancels Kid FoFo’s contract because his lyrics do suck.

NEXT: New York’s hottest club is… Leviticus!

With FoFo out of the running, Hakeem needs someone to help him perform at the opening of Leviticus. Right now, he just has the big gold necklace he inherited from Bunkie to keep him company. Luckily, Jamal is nearby, and Hakeem manages to convince him to beast up. The two perform onstage, mustering enough charisma to get Tianna—who has gone from T-Swift to Rihanna, outfit-wise—to fawn over Hakeem. After the concert is over, the two hook up.

As Hakeem and Jamal prep for their set, drama flows through the rest of the club. Andre claims that Andre feels great (in Empire, speaking about yourself in third person is a key sign of mental illness), but Rhonda knows better. She grabs his junk and tells him, “I swear to God, I’ll have you committed if you don’t take those damn pills.” Let’s assume he’s going to take those pills.

Watching Jamal and Hakeem, Lucious and Cookie also share a sweet moment, as they reflect on how they are both terrible parents. Cookie points out that Lucious made a mistake by not cracking down on Hakeem for saying terrible things about Obama. Lucious agrees, but the moment quickly evaporates when Anika arrives and insults Cookie for being old.

As Cookie leaves the club, we catch up with another subplot. Agent Carter (the Carter who has been texting Cookie all episode, who is a woman and not that Agent Carter or this Carter) pulls Cookie into a van. Carter tells Cookie that the terms of their deal—likely a plea deal that got her out of jail—have changed. Now, they, likely the FBI, want her to testify in front of a grand jury. Cookie is shocked. If she testifies, she insists, she’s going to die. Taraji, don’t do this to us again.

Wait, how was the music?

– “The Outspoken King” brought us four songs this week: Lucious’ 2002 rap hit, “What the DJ Spins”; Tianna’s ballerina number; Jamal’s down-tempo ballad about coming out of the closet and telling the truth; and Jamal and Hakeem’s Leviticus duet, “No Apologies.” “No Apologies,” full of mad-cap energy and totally in love with itself, was the clear standout. More importantly, if Empire has Terrence Howard rapping, how soon until it gets Taraji P. Henson to do the same? (Soon, I hope.)

Notes, quotes, and observations:

– The weekly rankings of Cookie’s outfits: 1) the cheetah dress with matching hat, 2) the psychedelic dress, accessorized with hoop earrings and throwable shoes, 3) the slinky, floor-length, black and sliver gown she wears to Leviticus.

– The weekly rankings of the Lyon children: 1) Hakeem, who headlined a club opening and got the girl, 2) Jamal, who is willing to compromise his integrity for dad’s money, 3) Andre, whose wife literally and figuratively has his balls in the palm of her hand.

– Becky got the short end of the screen time yet again this episode, but she did discover Lucious’ meds and learn about his life-threatening disease. Let’s hope this leads to some more Becky time in the future.

– Empire loves to have its characters interact with Barack Obama. In the pilot, Lucious was invited to a state dinner. In “The Outspoken King,” it’s implied that the president swears at Lucious after hearing about Hakeem’s insult. “C’mon, Barack,” Lucious says over the phone, “you know you don’t have to use that kind of language with me.”

– Cookie was in jail for 17 years, so she’s not up to date on all your new media terms. “What’s viral?” Cookie asks her new assistant Portia. “I don’t know. It’s what they said on the news,” Portia explains.

– Cookie to Andre about how Rhonda is “brilliant” last episode: “Pretty white girls always are.” Rhonda to Cookie this episode: “Some white girls actually are brilliant.”

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Chuck your shoes and other thoughts at me on Twitter at @McHenryJD or sound off in the comments.

Empire

Lee Daniels and Danny Strong created this Fox drama about a kingpin of hip-hop (played by Terrence Howard) and his family, who fight him for control of the empire.
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