In just one season, Empire became the second most-watched show on television behind AMC’s The Walking Dead. Helped by incredible performances from his lead actors, skillful dramatic storytelling, and decidedly Shakespearean elements, it’s no wonder the show exploded the way it did. But more than all that, Empire was driven by its spot-on depiction of the modern music industry, specifically in the controversial realm of hip-hop.
Much of the drama of the series was rooted in the dysfunction of Lucious Lyon and his family, interwoven with the seedier aspects of the way our music is made. Hip-hop today is nigh unrecognizable from its roots in 1980s Harlem, with its artists more interested in popularity and greed than in actually making artistically challenging music. Empire completely hits the nail on the head throughout its first season, showing us time and again that compromising quality for money is a road that only leads to suffering and misery. Much of it is dramatized for primetime television, but at the root of the show, we’re being given a masterclass on the music industry as we know it today.
1. Hip-hop is a shadow of its former self
Let’s face it: Hip-hop simply isn’t the genre it used to be. In its early years, it was an outlet for the marginalized to express themselves musically, and since then has led to some incredible music. But the modern iteration of hip-hop has moved far away from its origins. Much of the industry is drowning in pointless Twitter feuds, songs about making money, and little attention to the artistry that made it so great in the first place.
In Empire, we see this at virtually every turn. Our main character, Lucious Lyon, is constantly forced to face the truth behind his ascension to power: That as the CEO of his music label, he’s lost sight of why he got into music to begin with. He represents many of the pitfalls of hip-hop today in and of himself, painting a stark picture for its future.
2. Piracy and music rights are more insane than they ever have been
You can’t depict a record label without at least touching on the fact that music rights have never been more convoluted and confusing. On Empire, we see Lucious dealing with a corrupt former label boss, who owns his entire back catalogue of music. It’s part of the predatory nature of record labels, where they sign an artist, and then any music they make belongs to the label in perpetuity. It’s an unfortunate reality that has true artists preyed upon by people who want to exploit their talent for money, and in the end makes it so a musician never truly owns the thing they themselves created.
3. True talent lies in the art of self-expression
In the first season of Empire, we saw an interesting side-by-side between two of Lucious Lyon’s sons, Hakeem and Jamal. Hakeem was the physical embodiment of hip-hop ego, declaring himself a legendary artist without ever paying his dues (or even releasing an album). Jamal though created all his music through a place of pure emotion, as well as his struggles with his father not accepting his homosexuality. Objectively, the music we heard from Jamal was head and shoulders above his brother’s, drawing inspiration from his own life experience instead.
4. Ego is as prevalent a problem in hip-hop as it ever has been
If Lucious is the representation of “selling out” in the music business, his son Hakeem is the next generation that feels entitled to accolades sans accomplishments. Rappers nowadays spend more time talking about how great they are than they do actually striving to achieve that greatness. Lyrics are peppered with lines about making stacks and being “the best ever,” while little time is actually put into mixing, sampling, or even telling a story: The things that used to define hip-hop.
Hakeem’s character is one that revels in the excess and entitlement of modern hip-hop, born into riches and feeling as though his success should be given rather than earned. Empire is a show that knows the industry it portrays, and nowhere is that clearer than in the core nature of hip-hop music that each of their characters represent.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickNorthwest