There have been endless beautifully weird musical sequences in Lee Daniels’ leviathan music industry drama Empire. It’s hard to even keep track of them all, but they seemingly reach peak expressionism at the end of last season. If Jamal’s hyper-dramatic ratchet blues about Bushwick living and daddy issues, “Keep Your Money,” (aka “Dolla dolla bill y’all…”) seemed transcendentally bizarre — and at the same time, oh so satisfying and cathartic — it was nothing compared to the bizarre jams at the end of season one. There was Luscious and Jamal dueting licks on guitar and piano in Cookie’s sister Carol’s hook and singing into each other’s faces like Mick and Bowie, and Jamal croon-diss-freestyling at homophobic Empire rapper Kid Rambo.
Jamal monopolizes the better part of the musical spots on the show, but it always gets farthest out when Luscious jumps in. Now in prison and full of anger, he’s gotten some newfound inspiration where, for a while, he was dried up, and focused on doing whatever it took to get his company to go public. Now he’s got something to say — first and foremost, a diss on Cookie, or anyone who’s flapping their yap, titled “Snitch Bitch.”
So let’s pinpoint what makes this the ultimate Empire musical sequence to date. Perhaps first and foremost, there is the complete lack of verisimilitude and logic, which has been gradually abandoned more and more as the show has continued. The conceit is: Luscious and his cronies in the pen (who killed Chris Rock as Frank Gathers the drug dealer in the previous episode) have a little over an hour to pump out a song Luscious has had running through his head (we heard a sketch of it in episode one) on smuggled-in equipment. We see the song realized apparently in one take, with live Autotune applied, plus backing vocals in place, and a complex beat which Luscious’ British buddy is playing in real time. The others in the prison posse — including Clyde, played by North Carolina rapper and Petey Pablo — caper around near him, backing up the important lines.
More importantly, Howard as Luscious has the weirdest performance style and delivery of anyone else on the show. He smirks, skips, wags his finger around like he’s playing Fagin in Oliver!, while holding a tiny mic on a table stand to his mouth. His delivery is aggressively nasally, either crooning with a fragile vibrato or something like Boosie Badazz. The impression could be because, like a healthy chunk of the harder rap music on the show, the beat sounds like mid-‘00s ringtone rap. Though the chorus of the song is a lilting run-through of the phrase “Snitchin’-ass bitch,” its real dramatic catharsis comes with the line “like playing a grand piano/But tapping the wrong notes.”
The icing on the cake is the violent conclusion of the scene: The laptop with the recording on it is confiscated by an angry prison guard — out to get Luscious — played by none other than Ludacris, and Luscious is thrown into solitary. It seems like we’ll be getting a lot more of Luscious’ music; it seems the inspiration is flowing again now that he’s in the position of the underdog. If it stays as weird as all of his other songs have been in the series so far, this season may be a very wild ride musically, as well as dramatically.
You can watch Empire Wednesday nights on FOX or at Hulu.
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