So how realistic is the portrayal of the music industry in Empire, which premiered Wednesday night on Fox? Television critics aside, two music industry veterans weigh in with their opinions: MBK Entertainment CEO Jeff Robinson, whose past and current clients include Alicia Keys, Elle Varner and Gabi Wilson, and former Jive Records VP of A&R Jeff Sledge.
First things first, after watching the premiere episode of Empire, I have to say the show got off to a good start. I just hope it doesn’t become progressively generic as the season continues.
On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being best, I’d say the show ranks a 7 1/2 in terms of its realistic portrayal of the music industry. For instance, I loved how Terrence Howard‘s character, Empire Entertainment CEO Lucious Lyon, coached the emotion and feeling into the singer’s vocals during the show’s opening scene. That’s very true to life. It’s also worth noting that sometimes solutions to songs that artists, songwriters and producers get stuck on in the studio are resolved in random jam sessions or by playing it for someone else with a more musical ear. Another check on the plus side: Lyon’s gay son Jamal (played by Jussie Smollett) sings like Michael Jackson. I can’t wait to hear him sing on the show.
However, a couple of unrealistic situations stood out. One: Out of nowhere, Lyon’s gofer/stooge Bunky flips on the CEO after 20 years. There was zero buildup to that situation. And two: Cats will pay off an extortion attempt rather than commit murder, the latter of which was depicted on the show. As for the gay son, homosexuality is much more in the open now. But sadly I’d imagine quite a few parents back in the day would have reacted angrily, like Lyon did, to their child displaying homosexual tendencies. But wait, putting your kid in the trash for that? C’mon, son.
Speaking of Howard’s character, he looks a bit like label chief Big Red from Robert Townsend‘s 1991 industry-focused musical drama The Five Heartbeats because he has the conk [perm] in his hair. And Taraji P. Henson (Lyon’s ex-wife Cookie) is gangster, beating kids with broomsticks. LOL. The donkey rope chain worn by Bunky is circa 1988. But every label has a few of these guys hanging around.
As for the show’s premise — which of the sons will inherit the company — I think children of moguls make poor heirs to lead labels, as they usually grow up feeling privileged. Hunger is what really fuels drive and success, not privilege. But you rarely see labels being passed down to family members anymore. In the meantime, until the next episode, I’m off to put some conk in my hair, because all moguls should wear that kind of laid-back ‘do — and own at least two velvet jackets.
Empire is a very skewed look at what the hip-hop music biz was from 1995 until about 2004. Everything is over the top … yachts, conference rooms with basketball rims in them, huge apartments with garish furniture, maids, all the video clichés.
The idea that an indie R&B/hip-hop label would be going public is completely unrealistic but makes for a good storyline. Going public would mean the label, which seems to only have one semi-rapper and one R&B singer, is generating money like Sony or Universal? Uh, I doubt it. But hey, it’s TV.
The other angle that doesn’t mesh is how homophobic Terrence Howard’s character is. There’s no way he could be in the music biz that long, be that successful and not have worked with gay or lesbian folks. It’s impossible. So for him to hate his son that much for being gay isn’t realistic.
It’s very hard to judge a show based on one episode (especially the first episode). But my take is that Empire is a nighttime soap opera using the black music biz as a backdrop. Most of it isn’t realistic, and the scenarios are over the top. But folks are going to eat it up; people will invest in the characters. And most people think this is what the music business is anyway.
This article first appeared on Billboard.com.