‘Empire’ Review: ‘My Bad Parts’ Succeeds By Making It About the Music
Recap and review of Empire – Season 2 Episode 8 – My Bad Parts:
Empire is a primetime soap, but it’s also a music drama first and foremost (not that those two things are even mutually exclusive anyway). We get a window into how the music industry operates, while also exploring the ways in which these various artists come together to create something that has the potential to endure (namely, songs such as tonight’s latest track, “Ready To Go”). “My Bad Parts” is a towering success by making the music the focus.
I think it’s telling of just how much Empire has grown as a drama that one of the main storylines focuses on how Jamal (Jussie Smollett) struggles to get Lucious (Terrence Howard) and Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) to work together to help him produce a new song for his Pepsi campaign. One of the most viscerally engaging scenes of the episode is when Jamal gets Lucious and Cookie together in the studio, and shows them just what kind of magic can happen when they combine the best parts of the respective songs each of them have written. It’s a moment of pure creation that also builds character by illustrating not only the similarities between Jamal and his parents, but the similarities between Cookie and Lucious themselves. They’re all artists with the spirit and tenacity that tends to go hand-in-hand with artistry. When Jamal performs at the showcase and reveals to his parents the product of his artistry — when he mashes Lucious’s and Cookie’s songs into one glorious whole — we get the sense of a true bond being crafted. Sure, Cookie and Lucious still hate each other, but they’re able to set aside their differences in favor of mutual pride in their son. It’s a beautiful ceasefire, and these are the types of moments that can help set Empire apart. Maybe it’s not a musical in the traditional sense, but Empire is a series that tells its stories through song, and uses the medium of music to bolster the tales it tells. Through these types of stories, we get a better look at how these characters exist in their world. Maybe they don’t have complete mastery over their own respective situations, but these people know music, and that’s something they CAN have control over, both together and individually.
Of course, things are practically the inverse for Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), who gets neither Lucious nor Cookie to help him in his upcoming rap battle against Freda Gatz (Bre-Z). While he’s as boastful as ever, Hakeem seems to understand, at some level, that he’s in over his head. It’s a similar type of vulnerability to what we see in the aftermath of Hakeem’s kidnapping, since he truly looks concerned about taking an L after getting called out by a young upstart claiming to be the son Lucious always wanted Hakeem to be. In struggling to figure out how to defeat Freda, it’s ultimately suggested that Hakeem focus what he’s actually good at. He might not be the wordsmith Freda is, but he’s a consummate performer. And so that’s the approach he takes to his performance. It might be hyperbole, in some respects, but I thought the battle rap sequence was one of the best segments this show has ever produced, due in larger part to its illustration of the way music affects people, and can be used effectively in ways that regular speech (and even violence) can’t. It also exemplifies the contrast between the two characters, as Freda’s rap is more aggressive and personal, targeting Hakeem for being a mama’s boy who lacks any real street cred. She delivers “personals” that Hakeem can’t really match. So Hakeem goes in the opposite direction, relying on his showmanship, working the crowd with popular, sing-along catchphrases, and delivering verses that are basically just boasts about his income and skill level. He hardly even attacks Freda personally, he simply draws the comparison between her earning power and his. And you know what? It WORKS. Even though it really shouldn’t. By any lyrical metric, Freda won that battle, but Hakeem is hipper to the game than she is, and realizes that wordplay will only get you so far. Being a star means embodying everything that being a star represents, from working the crowd to carrying yourself like you’re untouchable. Hakeem is a consummate performer, and that’s why he won.
That said, Hakeem’s end of things don’t come without complications. For one, he declares that he will no longer be known as Hakeem Lyon, but rather just Hakeem. He drops his father’s last name in a bold move (I mean, you do remember the name of the label you’re on, right, Hakeem?), and it prompts Lucious to flashback to how he came up with the name Lyon, recalling having slept on the streets as a young boy beneath a lion carving. It’s a poignant moment that almost makes me feel bad for Lucious. Sure, he’s a lousy father, but he’s essentially being disowned by his own son here. And to make matters worse, he just lost a major bet to Cookie: they put a wager on the rap battle that stipulated that if Hakeem won, Cookie would get to release Jamal’s album on her label; if Freda won, Lucious would get to release Hakeem’s label through Empire. It made the already-heated rap battle all the more dramatic, since the stakes were greater than just pride. And yet, these interesting, music-focused storylines were occasionally overshadowed by interpersonal drama.
For one, Anika (Grace Gealey) is pregnant by Hakeem, which is difficult enough. But then Rhonda (Kaitlin Doublday) inadvertently gives Anika hope that pregnancy will make Hakeem a more loving, affectionate man. She learns the hard way that this isn’t true, unfortunately, as Hakeem declares he’s in love with Laura (Jamila Velazquez), prompting Anika to respond by donning a wig and masquerading as Laura’s driver, in one of the creepiest cliffhangers we’ve gotten so far. Is Anika actually going to do anything to Laura? Is she ever going to tell Hakeem she’s pregnant? Does she even love Hakeem, or is she just obsessed with him in a Fatal Attraction kind of way? I would guess it’s the latter, but it’s hard to tell, at this point, since Anika is perfectly normal one minute, and totally insane the next. She’s almost a strange mirror for Cookie, who goes from “semi-reasonable” to “out of her mind” at the drop of a hat, such as when she tells Hakeem to quit ragging on Laz (Adam Rodriguez), only to flip out on Laz when he tries to physically remove Hakeem from Cookie’s office. It’s a great little moment for Henson, who does a terrific job at making those attitude changes feel organic. Of course Cookie isn’t going to let any man lay hands on her son, especially after everything he’s been through. By the same token, she isn’t going to just let Hakeem disrespect her and the man who’s helping to get them a concert venue.
All this Cookie swagger culminates in this great scene where Cookie calls Hakeem out for being a snitch after he threatens to tell Lucious she’s working with Jamal. Henson has been on fire this season, and she’s created one of the great primetime soap matriarchs with Cookie. And it seems like the family tree is going to get even more tangled with the arrival of Cookie’s older sister Candice (Vivica A. Fox), who is here to get Cookie’s help with their younger sister, who has dropped off her kids at Candice’s house and disappeared. For some reason, Cookie feels they need to go to Philadelphia to resolve this, and I’m actually pretty interested in seeing where this goes, since we don’t really know that much about Cookie’s family history, honestly. If nothing else, I find it far more interesting than watching negotiations between Mimi (Marisa Tomei), Lucious, and that guy selling his streaming music service. I’m sure it’ll go somewhere, but Mimi is a character I’m struggling to tolerate, at the moment.
Ultimately, the best moments of “My Bad Parts” all center around music, and how it can shape, change, and inform our world, as well as the people in it. Stories like that are what Empire does best, even more so than the tawdry, soap opera-esque relationship battles, backdoor intrigue, and shady business dealings.
But what did you think of Empire, Season 2 Episode 8, “My Bad Parts”? Sound off in the comments!
And for more on Empire, read our recap and review of last week’s stellar “True Love Never”!