All due respect to the good people at Pepsi, but they got the wrong one, baby. Sure, Jamal Lyon landed the soft-drink spokesman slot (and took the show's product placement game to the next level) by combining his parents' musical instincts into the hybrid song that won the company over. But this week's episode of Empire — "My Bad Parts" — showcased his brother Hakeem's gifts (and those of Bryshere Gray, the actor who plays him) even more effectively.
And we're not even talking about the big Funkmaster Flex–hosted rap battle where he vanquished his father Lucious's protégé, Freda Gatz, with superior showmanship if not lyrical skill. (Seriously, that shit barely rhymed!) We've said it before, but one of this show's secret selling points is just how much the performers play the members of the Lyon family like real blood relatives. As Hakeem, Gray brings a relaxed, naturalistic charm to scenes, whether he's eating junk food with Jamal or getting pissed off with his mother Cookie's new double-agent boyfriend Delgado. He sounded so convincingly exasperated with the guy — "I swear to God, man, say something else, dawg!" — it's enough to give you anticipatory PTSD about fights with your family's significant others at Thanksgiving next week.
He was similarly strong in his scene with Anika, whose downward spiral of depression seems to have her on the brink of psychosis at this point. "We still homies, right?" he asks her after shrugging off her advances to tell her he's in love with his virginal girlfriend Laura. "I still think you dope!" His youthful naïveté in believing this would fly is somehow more endearing than annoying, even given the big secret that his (and his father's!) ex is pregnant with his child.
Then there's the battle itself. To be honest, Hakeem's defeat of Freda felt like something of a mercy killing, since the young MC's storyline was a rare case of a plot element on Empire that never quite worked. Granted, the character was supposed to seem ill at ease in the Lyons' high-powered world, but that out-of-place vibe affected how it felt to watch her as well. Compared to her convincingly sullen demeanor and angry outbursts, the idea that she had a take-on-the-world hunger to rival that of Lucious and his family never came across on screen. She always looked like someone who'd be much happier just battling on the streets where the mogul found her.
Which raises the question: What does Lucious see in Freda Gatz, anyway? His involvement with her career stems from his prison rivalry with her father, Frank Gathers, but the promise he made to make her a star just before killing the guy has already been kept. (He also swore he'd have sex with her, but that part of the deal seems forgotten, at least for now.) As for his claim that he relates to her and her hard-knock life story more than he does to his silver-spoon sons, surely that's been true of any number of artists on his roster before now.
The best explanation: spite. Andre's a perpetual disappointment, Hakeem's an ingrate who sided with his mom in the big family feud, and Jamal is his own man with little of the business bloodlust that marks his father. What better way to show his sons he doesn't really need them than to conjure an artistic heir out of thin air by concocting a daughter? Her defeat at the big battle is really his defeat, even without the added spectacle of Hakeem taking a baseball bat to his last name. He tried to show the world that his grip on the Lyon legacy was so strong he could hand it off at will, and he blew it.
It's likely he blew the merger with SwiftStream as well. Unable to outmaneuver the streaming-music company's CEO, not even with the help of his cheerily crooked lawyer Thirsty Rawlings, Lucious instead has to turn to another infusion of cash from his backer Mimi Whiteman. She's been playing off her recent problems as a personal matter, but there's almost certainly something more nefarious at work. (It's a soap opera, isn't there always?) What if, instead of a girlfriend on the other end of that teary phone call last week, there was some kind of silent partner she's helping steal the kingdom right out from under Lyon's nose?
Lucky for him, then, that his ex-turned-rival Cookie has problems of her own. The unexpected arrival of her hoity-toity sister Candace (Vivica A. Fox!) signals that the chickens may have come home to roost for Carol, the sibling she turns to when the shit hits the fan — or when severed human heads get sent to her through the mail. The Lyonness is already sleeping with one enemy, and now it sounds like another is coming for her kin. That could be one storyline too many for either of them to really work. But like the characters it chronicles, Empire loves a challenge, and rarely fails to rise to it.
Previously: Number One With a Bullet