I can’t believe it’s been almost a month since we were last with the Lyon family. Thanks a lot, sports! Without getting into everything else that happened during the World Series-induced hiatus (though some characters tonight made some pretty apt allusions), it’s good to be back with the most predictably unpredictable pack in the fictional-music business.
We last left off with Shyne and his crew preparing for war. This week opens with a long, scattered montage showing them on their way to “kill some Lyons.” First target: Andre, who humiliated Shyne the night before with Lucious and forced him to sign Nessa to Empire (though Shyne did throw the first punch). But when Shyne pulls the trigger on an empty gun and stops to grab a second — really? all that prep and you were carrying an unloaded gun? — Nessa jumps in front of it to save Andre and ask Shyne what the hell he’s doing. Shyne is, as expected, furious to realize Nessa is here in the morning wearing Andre’s shirt, but Nessa pleads with him not to pull the trigger: “You’re my brother and I love you,” she says, before his goons pull her away as she screams.
That small crisis averted, it’s time for a Lyon family meeting. Andre and Lucious inform the others of the previous night’s events, and Andre says he’s moving into Lucious’ guest house. Lucious seems to think Shyne’s rage was inevitable, but he doesn’t think he’d go snitching to Tariq, as mad as he is at the Lyons. Jamal breaks in with some truth about his father: “Am I the only one seeing this? He loves this type of drama!” They see it, but can’t do anything. Lucious has his own plan — and part of that plan involves Hakeem doing his Empire XStream performance as planned.
Jamal decides to make Hakeem’s performance work for him, too, and he shows up with a hot track to offer. One condition though: It’ll be a joint performance, streamed from Jamal’s living room so he can get over his stage fright and so Hakeem can show Bella what the future looks like. Hakeem is in, but when they go to Leviticus and announce, Graham (Tiana’s boyfriend) shows up out-of-the-blue and challenges him to a battle, which he will stream on his own app. Because apparently streaming apps can just be whipped up in no time when you need to clap back at someone?
Speaking of Tiana, Empire’s pop princess has to record a new track of her own, but what she wants isn’t what Cookie wants. So Becky, still angry at random white man Xavier getting the job she was promised, decides to go rogue and let Tiana record her chosen song. (Great Becky line this week: “Do not mansplain to me, and especially do not white-mansplain to me!”) She tells Tiana that Cookie’s cool with it, and Tiana records a catchy, smooth song called “Starlight.” Xavier comes to the studio and agrees the song is a hit, and Becky thinks he’ll help convince Cookie to give the song a shot. Of course, when meeting time comes, not only is Cookie pissed, but Tiana gets Becky removed from her team for lying to her. So much for trying to have Tiana’s back. If Becky wasn’t going to follow J. Poppa to the other label before, I bet she’s ready now.
Meanwhile, Jamal surprises Lucious in his office to talk about the stream, but Lucious, as usual, flips the table around. He’s still taunting Jamal about how he lied to get Freda Gatz out, then quotes Shakespeare and calls Jamal “the younger version of me, with a twist” (honestly, kind of funny). “How’d you get so corrupt?” Jamal asks. “There’s no way you were born this way.” In the real world, I think America has the same question. I laughed again, though, when Lucious tells Jamal, “You are 50-percent genetically predisposed to turn into me.” Genes aren’t exactly a cloning coin-flip, but sure, Lucious. Sure.
NEXT: It’s a “kill or be killed” world
Earlier in the episode, Cookie and Angelo get coffee and take a walk, seeming like quite the happy couple — until Lucious’ bodyguard army snatches her up to carry her back to the Lyon’s den. They’re getting close and telling each other things, but soon Cookie wonders if she’s said too much. She goes to see her probation officer, like she does once every three months, and Charlene cracks down on her for the first time ever. Cookie is confused, reminding her she isn’t late, she always comes in at this time, and she was looking at photos of the woman’s kids at Cookie’s last visit.
Charlene says Cookie will need to come in three times per week, and if she needs time to consider the offer, she can wait it out back in prison. Something is definitely up — but who said something? Mayoral candidate Angelo, whose constituents might be wary of him dating an ex-con? FBI agent Tariq, who could definitely pull some strings in other government agencies?
Or was it Lucious, who wants control over everything — especially his family? Right now, he’s reading to Bella (I think from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet), but he uses the opportunity to tell Hakeem a cautionary tale about human nature. “The real nature of humanity is dark and beastly,” he reminds Hakeem, telling him he’s the one who’s supposed to be teaching his young (er, Bella) how to survive in this “kill or be killed” world. A switch flicks on in Hakeem’s brain.
He goes to rehearse with Jamal, but feels the performance is way too soft, way too Jamal. It has none of Hakeem’s hard edges, though it was supposed to be Hakeem’s show. “It needs to command respect,” he says. But Jamal tells him he’s going to end up spending his whole career doing clap-back songs. “If you had enough followers, you’d be doing this on your own channel,” Hakeem says. He’s not wrong. “Everybody knows this concert is life or death for you,” he says. Again, harsh — but true. Without this show, Jamal will keep fading away into obscurity. Fame is a fire that needs to be stoked, constantly. And for his part, Hakeem is turning a corner.
Later, Shyne literally turns a corner and enters Lucious’ foyer, where security pats him down, and he reminds them he wouldn’t have brought weapons to a peaceful sit-down. They exchange barbs and Lucious tries to remind him he’s a gangster, too: “Don’t forget I do this, Shyne.” Shyne isn’t having it: “You haven’t done this for years. You’re industry. I’m still in the streets.” They keep going, until Shyne says, “Come on Lucious, it’s me, bro. I could have buried you a long time ago. Remember Camden?” Um… WE don’t remember Camden! What happened in Camden, Lucious?
Things get tense again, but Anika slinks in and saves the day, telling Shyne they’d discussed wanting to give him his own imprint. Nessa would be on a different contract, but when Shyne asks for Freda Gatz, Lucious gives her up easily. So… The “war” they’ve been preparing for in the three weeks Empire was on hiatus is over, just like that?
Maybe it’s not over, but it’s shifting into an intra-family battle. Cookie comes to yell at Hakeem for not wanting to do Jamal’s surefire hit, then Keem says he should have known Jamal would run crying to Mom. They start arguing: “You’re the baby! Dumb little baby!” Cookie calls them girls and says they’re acting like sissies (yay, feminism…), then tells them both what they’re doing wrong. To Hakeem, an extra warning: “If you are afraid of getting on the wrong side of your daddy, you don’t want to get on the wrong side of your mama.”
NEXT: The Lyons are a house divided
We’ll see if he heeds that advice, but now, it’s time for the Empire XStream performance. Jamal’s part of the song goes off without a hitch. It’s our smooth, peaceful, Marvin Gaye version of Jamal. But Hakeem’s audience isn’t even tuning in, and though the numbers are steady, they’re not increasing like Lucious wants. Hakeem says he doesn’t need to do a verse against Graham — Tiana’s his ex, why waste the energy when he has a new girl to impress? “Hate to break it to you, but your brother already got that on lock,” Lucious tells Hakeem, gesturing over to Andre and Nessa canoodling in the corner. Rage boils in Hakeem and he performs a fierce rap right in Andre’s face: “I knew the whole time that you’s the fake one.” But he doesn’t stop there. Then he goes after Jamal and his “Mickey Mouse performance,” targeting his sexual orientation with gestures and offensive words. It’s a far cry from the way the brothers were sticking together at the beginning of the season. This really does mean war.
No one is going to let this go easily. Andre starts yelling to Hakeem that he didn’t even know he was into Nessa, while Jamal furiously mocks the excuses they’ll use for Keem’s behavior: “Don’t worry about it, it was Hakeem Lyon, he’s just vibing.” People are pulling them off each other as the argument gets heated, and who’s there making sure the whole reality-show-worthy feud is broadcast live across Times Square? Dear old dad, Lucious. Well, I wouldn’t want to be at their house for the holidays!
There’s one bright spot, for Cookie at least. After an earlier fight with Angelo — where they both went home before someone said something they’d regret (at his urging) — Angelo catches up with Cookie at Empire with her probation officer and a “friend” of his in tow. Apparently there was a misunderstanding, and the officer was too harsh. Cookie can go back to her once-every-three-months visits — and Angelo confesses he realizes the Lyons are fighters. (Just now?) And he’s going to prove that he’s a fighter, too…by fighting for her.
At the end of the night, two men take a walk — and I’m surprised it took this long for them to get together. As Tariq and Shyne chat, Tariq lets him know he knows about the body he and Lucious “hid in a slab of concrete back in Camden.” THAT sounds great! So the body count we know Lucious is at least directly responsible for includes Bunky, Camden man, and Frank Gathers? And by the way, Shyne does know about Frank Gathers. He’s more than happy to hint as much to Tariq before walking away. Remember at the beginning when Lucious said Shyne would die before he snitched? Not so much.
Speaking of Shyne, back at Lucious’ house, Anika hints she’d like to be head of A&R at Shyne’s imprint. Impressed with her showing earlier that day, Lucious says he’ll think about it. Then Hakeem comes in, and father and son bond as Lucious teaches Hakeem how to hold his child. Hakeem tells him he was right about the concert. “I wasn’t going to let you get punked like that,” Lucious says. “If that means you have to go to war with your brothers, then so be it.” Hakeem says he wants to find himself musically again, and Lucious says that while Shyne can produce some of his songs, maybe Lucious will get into the studio with him and produce him again, too. “I’ll turn you into a destroyer of souls,” he says.
So, in addition to making Hakeem some sort of Marvel villain… The Lyons are once again a house deeply, deeply divided. On one side, there’s Hakeem, Lucious, Anika; on the other side, Jamal and Cookie. Is Andre with Lucious or with Cookie? Is Ghost Rhonda with Andre, or is she going to haunt Anika for a change? Guess we’ll have to stay tuned to find out.
Episode grade: B+