Among its many, many charms, Empire makes us want to play a fun guessing game. Is there a real Lucious Lyon? Is his label supposed to be like Roc-A-Fella? Is Cookie based on Sylvia Robinson? Could Empire Entertainment really go public? Trying to figure out where fact and fiction intersect is almost as entertaining as embracing the show’s over-the-top plotlines, baby-mama drama, and white-collar intrigue. It’s not just us non-music-biz laypeople — industry insiders have also been hooked by the show’s attempts (and feints) at aping actual life.
“I love the Cookie Monster,” says LA Reid, CEO of Epic Records, who worked with Empire co-creator Lee Daniels on Precious. “I identify with her. She’s funny, she deals with talent well, she has so much game. She’s real to me. She feels like the industry.” Reid says Cookie’s unstoppable hustle reminds him of the “greats of our industry.” He won’t cite anyone specifically, instead explaining that “I see many characters within those characters.” So do the fans. Cookie, who, as played by Taraji P. Henson, can throw some Olympic-level shade, has been compared to Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown, among other hip-hop heavyweights.
Despite all her backroom savvy, Cookie does have some believability gaps. “Taraji’s role is kind of corny,” says former Roc-A-Fella Records general manager Al Branch. “You can’t leave the scene for 17 years and come back as a producer. That’s not realistic. That’s almost impossible.” Viewers have noticed these discrepancies with Henson’s character as well, bewildered, as Branch suggests, by the fact that she knows how to use a soundboard, Twitter, and smart tablets so easily after spending nearly two decades in jail. For Branch, what the show does get right is the crime and violence. “The street aspect is real. It’s really real,” he says, referring to the recent Billy Baretti/gangster subplot. (It’s long been rumored that Sugar Hill Records had mob ties.)
While Empire is especially popular among black households (62 percent of the show’s 18-to-49 audience is black), its massive success is a reflection of hip-hop culture’s ability to excite in the broader public imagination. “Black music has always been for connoisseurs of culture,” says Reid. “Never was it intended for only black people. [Empire] really says something about the staying power of urban culture in the mainstream.” Even though Branch says the show is more soap than scoop, he believes that the way it plays into our lurid fascination with the music business is “smart,” and there’s another layer beyond the music angle that captivates: “It’s a depiction of the urban community, and the savviness it takes to be a black executive.”
Lee Daniels obviously knows something about the latter. His decision to use mostly original music — Timbaland is the show’s executive music producer — means that Empire has now positioned itself to take part in the business it is so thrillingly depicting, and adds a crucial level of authenticity. There’s an upcoming soundtrack in the works, and a possible tour with Bryshere Y. Gray, Jussie Smollett, V Bozeman, and other cast members later this year. “For Empire to go out on a limb with original music is risky,” Reid admits, “but it also says something about the quality of the music that they’re creating.” (Here’s looking at you, “Drip Drop.”)
Reid does have one overarching criticism of the show, though: He wishes he’d thought of it. “He’s genius,” Reid says of Daniels. “He’s captured the essence of a record label, and artists, competition, some of the struggle. He’s captured it but he’s made it more entertaining than it really is. That company seems like a lot of fun.” Here Reid paused. “I don’t know,” he continued. “My company is probably equally as fun, and probably just as colorful.”