Television’s first great hour-long musical drama of 2015, Empire, has become a water cooler conversation initiator after making its debut earlier this month. Starring Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, the FOX series has already been dubbed Hip Hop’s equivalent to ABC’s insanely popular country music-based Nashville. Focused on record label and media company Empire Enterprise, Howard stars as Lucious Lyon; former drug dealer turned rapper who has built the American dream through even more questionable means. This is where Henson’s portrayal of ex-wife Cookie Lyon comes in. Recently released from prison after a seventeen year sentence for drug charges, Cookie wants half of Empire Enterprise as cash gained through illicit dealings funded the company’s early beginnings. A huge bulk of the drama also comes through Lucious’ recent diagnosis of ALS and which of his three sons get control after his eventual death. This leads to an interesting power struggle between executive eldest son Andre, singer/songwriter middle child Jamal and hot-headed aspiring rapper and youngest sibling Hakeem.
Already a hit with both viewers and critics, Empire takes inspiration from news and rumors that have spread throughout Hip Hop for decades. Those with both underlying and surface level knowledge of the culture are bound to have a grand time naming those varying aspects. With that in mind, DX will be presenting a weekly series based around the show entitled “Empire State of Mind” which will recap episodes and offer insight into possibly inspired scenarios among others.
For our first entry, we’ll find out which of Hip Hop’s key figures possibly inspired Empire’s leads and cast.
Portrayed by: Terrence Howard
Possible inspiration: Jay Z, Jimmy Henchmen, Master P
Howard has already had his hand portraying a struggling rapper due to his turn as DJ in Hustle & Flow. This time, he essentially plays the same character type outside of being based out of Philly instead of Memphis and growing into an executive with power that few in Hip Hop acquire. This is where the obvious comparisons to Jay Z come to play. Going from Rocafella co-founder and MC, Hov has established himself as a moguel with connects reaching all the way to United States president himself, Barack Obama. Those having even a passing knowledge of Roc Nation head understand his past in drug dealing; something he hasn’t shied away from. Part of Lucious’ conflict with Cookie steams around drug money used to fund his label. Like most conflicts in Hip Hop’s uneasy connection to the streets, most problems in settled through violence. Lucious’ kills his longtime friend during the series pilot after an extortion attempt and has alluded to other murders giving him an edge more related to currently incarcerated figure Jimmy Henchmen. Then there’s the relationship with his sons. Likely taking notes from Master P who set the stage for his own children, most notably Romeo (more on that later), Empire’s plot revolves around which son will run Empire Enterprise next. Those mogul aspirations go farther as Lucious also runs a liquor and clothing line.
Portrayed by: Jussie Smollett
Possible inspiration: Frank Ocean, Jaden Smith
Much has been said by series creator Lee Daniels about homophobia in the black community and its influence on Lucious’ middle son Jamal. There’s a slick social commentary on the issue through the singer-songwriter’s relationship with his homophobic father. Musically, Jamal is conflicted with his place within the industry as a homosexual and an artist whose music directly opposes trends. This is clearly a blatant take on Frank Ocean. That struggle in artistic identity in face of privilege can be attributed to Jaden Smith as well; someone who has done everything in his creative power to distance himself from father Will Smith.
Portrayed by: Bryshere Gray
Possible inspiration: Chris Brown, Lil Romeo, Lil Wayne
Youngest of the Lyon clan, Hakeem has a level of recklessness that reminds many of Chris Brown himself. Voicing his irresponsible thoughts on Obama to paparazzis, the clip goes viral enough where Lucious offers an apology to the president himself. Then there’s the relationship with newly signed Empire artist and Tiana Brown(see what they did there?) which looks like a future trainwreck. His dreams of superstardom are countered by his underachieving spoiledness of many privileged youth. If Lucious is Master P, Hakeem is clearly modeled after Lil’ Romeo as well. As his father’s favorite, he clearly wants to be like him but lacks that street honed ambition. Artist wise, he’s pretty much characterized as any standard rapper living in a post-Lil Wayne world.
Portrayed by: Taraji P. Henson
Possible inspiration: Debra Antney, Sylvia Robinson
Series favorite Cookie Lyon has just spent seventeen years in prison over drug charges and is ready to claim her due stake in Empire Enterprises. The take-no-prisoners attitude and slick mouth could be based off of Mizay Entertainment head Debra Antney. Both are forces to be reckoned with yet, have the ability to recognize future megastars when most don’t. Cookie was the main one who believed in Lucious’ abilities just as Mizay was able to cultivate Gucci Mane, son Waka Flocka and Nicki Minaj among others. Cookie hopes that same experience in grooming Lucious help in building Jamal. May be a stretch, but there are hints of Sugar Hill Records founder/CEO Sylvia Robinson. Much has been rumored into her role in making Hip Hop’s first commercial breakthrough “Rappers Delight” but one thing is for sure, she wasn’t a pushover.
Portrayed by: Malik Yoba
Possible inspiration: Dame Dash, Ronald “Slim” Williams
Every rapper fronted record label always has someone willing to play second in-command or background heavyweight. Though much is unknown as of yet, Vernon Turner is Lucious’ right-hand man for what is currently known. Yoba’s character hasn’t had many speaking parts but it’s clear that Lucious respects his opinion and input to an extent. There are plenty of plotlines that could find inspiration from some of Hip Hop’s best behind the scenes label executives from Rocafella’s Dame Dash to Cash Money’s Ronald “Slim” Williams.
See any other relationships between Empire’s cast and well known people in Hip Hop? Comment below.