Eric Thurm spent his early years writing spec scripts for New York Undercover.
It’s hard to pull off consistently good TV about musicians. Good luck trying to convince an audience that the characters are actually good artists without having original music that’s actually up to snuff. So Fox’s Empire, a consciously ridiculous, soapy blur that mostly consists of Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie destroying everyone in her path, is a bit of a hard sell for fans. But whatever your opinions on the Lyon clan, it’s hard to deny the cultural force of Empire—not only is it a shocking ratings sensation for Fox, with its basically unprecedented weekly rise in viewership, its soundtrack is the #1 album in America. (Take that, Madonna.)
Ignore the fact that the soundtrack is mediocre at best, or that the stars might actually be going on tour to try and make Yazz a thing. To get into Empire, you just kind of have to accept that for some reason, it takes place in a hip-hop world stuck in a weird version of 2005, where everything sounds like a Timbaland B-side and the music industry is somehow capable of making money for certain artists. Thankfully, we almost never have to hear any of the songs for more than a minute on the show, which makes it a bit harder for them to wear out their welcome. With a healthy tolerance for absurdity, Phony Rappers digs into the world of Empire to ask—who’s the best MC, Hakeem, Lucious, or Nas?
With one of the worst rap names on a show filled with terrible rap names, Black Rambo is only introduced in the season finale to be a massive homophobe and make Lucious look good. Then, he gets washed in an 8 Mile-style freestyle battle with Jamal. Even Andre’s therapist Dr. Ciroc could blow Black Rambo out of the water.
The whole show rests on believing that Lucious, played by the dude from Crash (Terrence Howard is a terrible actor), was a real gangster in the ‘90s and managed to turn a couple of okay-sounding snippets into a massive… um… empire. Nah. Now? Lucious is washed, and treats everyone around him like shit while expecting everything to go his way like the worst kind of rap game Frank Underwood. And his music is trash.
A shooter claims Kidd Fo-Fo’s music inspired him, and he gets dropped from Empire. People trying to blame rappers for crimes is nothing new, and though likely most people with even a little intelligence would let it go, the idea that he would be blamed by, like, the New York Post isn’t outside the realm of possibility. But more importantly–who is he making music for with the name Kidd Fo-Fo? Seven-year-olds who accidentally watched CB4?
Somehow, Titan is one of the hottest rappers in the game while simultaneously being in the pocket of the Fruit of Islam. Is Titan secretly Jay Electronica? Did he finally release his album and become the savior of hip-hop/the actual messiah? Maybe. Also, he’s “the most authentic rapper since 2Pac,” which means that he’ll probably be interviewed by Kendrick Lamar in the season two premiere. And, as of the season finale, he’s out of prison! Titan and his Spartan helmet will dominate season two.
As awful and generic as he is for much of the season, Hakeem might actually have the most upside of anyone in the Empire roster–he’s got an ear for the type of hooks that work in this world, and his obnoxious personality will probably be good for picking up some stans. If he can get himself together, season two Hakeem just might be able to produce a jazzy, upbeat hit, maybe called “Tygamortus.”
Jussie Smolet is probably the most talented musician in the Empire cast, and Jamal the most gifted character. But being the level-headed one who wants to take care of a little girl is kind of boring. (Thank god his father is the real baby daddy.) And one of his bigger songs starts with “I want my MTV.” We can forgive Empire being ten years in the past… but 30? Still, the season ends with Jamal seemingly in control of the company, and a power-hungry Jamal who can theoretically make pretty good music is a force to be reckoned with.
Even with a short guest appearance, Snoopzilla is by far the most talented rapper to appear on Empire, and will always have a special place on the show. Oh, the “Peaches and Cream” spinoff that might have been.