January 19, 2016

Days of Our Hip Hop Lives meets King Lear as Empire returns to our screens, soapier and sillier now that it’s in its sophomore season. And everything that made it such a hot mess is present and accounted for as the Lyons go to war for creative, commercial and communal dominance… of each other and the wider entertainment sphere.

From the ripped from the headlines plot to the performances that are straight out of the Real Housewives of RuPaul’s Dragrace, its like a modern-day minstrel show, where all the characters are spoilt, quipping show boats that break into song at the drop of a hat, engage in exaggerated ‘gangster’ activities, and talk of ‘the streets’ and ‘keeping it real’, all whilst dressed like Ferrero Rocher…or those who consume them.

 In Season One Lucious Lyon (a one-noteTerrance Howard) had to pick- from his three feuding sons, the successor to his corporate throne, after he discovers he could now benefit from the proceeds of the ice bucket challenge.

Selecting from the Frank Ocean-esque crooner Jamal(Jussie Smollett), the Chris Brown-aping Hakeem (Bryshere  Gray) and Andre(Trai Byers), a Damon Dash style entrepreneur with a white, Lady Macbeth wife, the season focused on the feuding, scheming, loving and leaving, whimsically manipulated by Cookie(Taraji Penda Henson)- their mama bear whose fresh out of the joint and on the hunt for her honey.

It was mildly entertaining and phenomenally successful, riffing on the lives of Jay Z, Rhianna, Beyonce, while real life rappers and rockers took small but memorable guest roles (Courtney Love, Ludicrous, Jennifer Hudson).

Timbaland provided the EDM-laced beats which were nasty as all that but addictive as f£$k, while a finger-snapping, meme-generating turn from Henson, who exhaled indignant, bitch-slapping fumes into each scene like hair-spray on a tatty weave, pushed the show into the zeitgeist. 

A successor chosen, and the ALS explained away, Season 2 sees the fall out of Lucious’s choice, as those spurned attempt a hostile takeover of Empire, and a public prosecutor tries to nail his incarcerated ass so she can boost her chances of being elected D.A.

If this shtick worked for you last year you’ll be delighted to hear its more of the same, with Marisa Tomei a stand-out among the ever-present trash talking totty, as a canny, cancer surviving billionaire who buzzes sweetly before plunging in her stinger.

Andre Royo (Bubbles from The Wire) also piques interest as Lucious’s crooked counsel because he’s pretty much the only person who doesn’t snapchat his intentions and post it for all to see.

But it’s a relic of an archaic style, which is more Aaron Spelling than David Simon, so that the fertile ground that creator Lee Daniel’s has chosen to plough his narrative seed in, spurts out petrol shop flowers.

He withers and wastes the fascinating dichotomy between the social injustice that make so many rap artists turn to crime in their youth, the saviour that is music and the messiah complex they develop as they rise to the top of the charts, loosing touch with themselves and reality.

While characters spring in and out of the action and allegiances shift and splinter so often-all in aid of the incessant cliffhangers, you stop investing in the story fairly quickly.

As for the music, its chart friendly, but often unintentionally hilarious, especially when we’re told over and over that Cookie is a musical genius, or that Lucious is a rap god.

We never see any proof of it. Nothing performed would seem out of place on a Katy Perry album and lyrically the songs add nothing to the plot and contain next to no social conscience, particularly when you consider Empire is using #blacklivesmatter for their own ends this year. (While the way in which almost every scene ends with an orchestral quiver suggests a tension that just ain’t in the story.)

It’s twisted; trashy tattle-tales makes for an undemanding watch for those with an attention span soured from prolonged exposure to reality TV. But the cringe-y dialogue, over the top performances and scatter-brained storytelling make it a rather tasteless treat.


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