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Empire is NOT just another lame musical

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A feuding family, a fight for the throne and music?

Empire” takes drama to the next level as members of the Lyon family compete for the sovereignty of Empire Entertainment, the family music business and legacy. With music as its driving force, this show explores complex themes and diversifies television. This musical-drama is the work of Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, both known for the 2013 film “The Butler,” and just finished the first half of its second season. “Empire” will return to Fox March 30, meaning you’ve just enough time to catch up.

You might not think “Empire” is the show for you, but you’d be surprised. Not all of us are fans of musicals — the way characters constantly disrupt the plot to burst into song can be annoying. However, I challenge you to watch the first episode and not get hooked. The singing of the Timbaland-produced songs might turn you off at first, but this is certainly not your typical musical.

The best word to describe “Empire” is intense. Every episode leaves me with my mouth hanging open and my heart racing, and that’s because this show is packed with drama and full of complex themes. The series is loosely based off of Shakespeare’s tragedy “King Lear,” except instead of three daughters fighting for their father’s kingdom, three sons fight for control of their father’s record company.

The Lyon family is far more dysfunctional than your average family. Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is a former drug dealer turned hip-hop artist and CEO of Empire Entertainment. Lucious values his legacy tremendously and relies on his sons, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Andre (Trai Byers), to protect it when he falls ill. Unfortunately, there can only be one CEO, and the brothers find themselves in competition for control of the company. To make matters worse, Lucious’s ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) is released from jail, just in time to claim her own stake in the Empire.

As a show centered around the music industry, it is only natural for “Empire” to feature music. But unlike your typical musical, this series finds the perfect balance between music and drama. The music is part of the show because the characters are artists, so the songs fit more naturally than in your typical musical. Instead of characters constantly breaking out into song, they share their music at appropriate times that don’t interrupt the narrative.

Not only does the audience listen to the songs, but they know the meaning behind them, what went into its development and how it improves throughout an episode. Back in season one, Jamal writes the song “Keep Your Money,” when he cuts himself off from the support of his father. For an entire episode, we visualize the process from his initial inspiration for the song to producing it to perfection. It’s much more than listening to the music; we’re experiencing the music.

More than that, the music has value because it addresses societal issues. In season one, Jamal comes out as gay by changing the words in his version of his father’s song, “You’re So Beautiful.” To his father’s dismay, Jamal sings, “This is the kind of song that makes a man love a man,” instead of a woman. This season, Jamal teams up with fictional artist Skye Summers (real-life artist Alicia Keys) to write the breath-taking ballad “Powerful” that envisions a “colorful future where skin don’t define any human.”

A perfect ratio between music and acting leaves plenty of room for plot, theme and character development that every great drama needs. “Empire” is essentially one big power struggle, and music provides the power: music gives Lucious the power to rise from the streets and build his legacy; music gives Jamal the power to express his true self; music gives Jamal and Hakeem power over Andre in the competition for the company.

Andre is Lucious’s eldest son and the chief financial officer of Empire Entertainment. Despite the fact that he graduated from an Ivy league business school and has business experience, Andre struggles to land the CEO position because his father favors his musically-talented brothers. To add to the struggle, Andre suffers from bipolar disorder. The pressure to impress his father fused with his mental illness leads to his chilling breakdown in season one’s “Unto the Breach.”

Cookie suffers a similar power struggle when she goes to prison and loses control of Empire Entertainment. She and Lucious built the company together with drug money, but she took all the heat when they got caught. While she serves her 17-year sentence, Lucious divorces her and takes the company for himself. Luckily, Cookie is a fierce, sassy powerhouse of a woman who doesn’t take sh*t from anyone. Even if you don’t love her, you have to respect her audacity. This season, Cookie takes her power back by starting her own record company, Lyon Dynasty, to challenge Lucious. And of course, she slays. Lyon Dynasty becomes Empire’s main competitor, because Cookie drills her artists into shape. In “Fires of Heaven,” she produces a girl group comparable to Destiny’s Child in just a few days by beating a stick on the ground and yelling my favorite Cookie line: “Everybody wants to be Beyonce, but you don’t want to put in the work!”

All themes and characters aside, the music of “Empire” is on fire. If you aren’t interested in the show, you should at least check out the music. Between the cast of characters and the huge list of musical guest stars including Ne-Yo, Pitbull and Estelle, “Empire” is full of hit songs that you’re sure to download on iTunes or Spotify.

Email Haley at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @hbucelew.

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The digital-first, student-run magazine of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Journalism Department
Empire is NOT just another lame musical