‘Empire’ Recap: Hakeem Leaves the Lyons

Last week, one of my main complaints with Empire was that it was spiraling a bit off the rails and seemed to be more interested in big scenes to be immediately discussed on Twitter but without much more to go with. This week, it reins itself in a little with better results.

Empireis a big, flashy show but it’s also one where smaller moments can really land if done correctly. Much of “My Bad Parts” best scenes are smaller and more character-driven instead of, well, threesomes and guns-in-studios. At the center of it all is a big rap battle between Freda Gatz and Hakeem — and the Lyon parents have a lot riding it on it, too. It all begins when Freda releases a diss track aimed at Hakeem that basically insinuates that she’s taking over his spot as Lucious’ child, and taking away Hakeem’s last name.

But this last name is no coincidence: The Lyons are a prideful bunch and Hakeem, through Periscope, announces that he’s going to battle Freda. The problem is that Freda is definitely a battle rapper whereas Hakeem is more of a performance rapper—his strengths, as Jamal later tells him, lie in hyping up the crowd, putting on an unforgettable stage show, and getting everyone on his side.

This impending rap battle isn’t the only thing that has the Lucious and Cookie once again at each others throats. Jamal is approached by Pepsi to audition for a huge endorsement deal but he can’t get the song just right on his own. Lucious helps, but there’s something missing. While continuing to sneak around at Cookie’s, she helps too but there’s still something missing. So Jamal schemes to get them in the same room (I smell a rom-com!) with the idea that both of his parents combined will make the best track. He’s right, but neither Lucious nor Cookie are willing to admit it because they don’t want to share credit. Hakeem gives Jamal the plain advice to “Don’t ask, just take,” prompting Jamal to combine the two himself and perform in front of Pepsi executives—and his parents. It’s a simplistic way to get across the “Cookie and Lucious make better music when they’re together” thing, but it works largely because of the look of pride on both his parents’ faces when he performs and then subsequently books the deal.

The other big and dramatic story of the night involved Anika. Yep, Anika! They are really burning through dramatic character turns, huh? It was the one that felt most flat to me, which is surprising considering how “big” it’s supposed to be. Yet the scenes of Anika taking a pregnancy test, attempting to tell Hakeem, and then, uh, posing as a driver and whisking away Laura to god knows where all didn’t feel quite as real or emotional as the scene where Jamal and Hakeem are just sitting on the floor, chatting, and eating chips.

But anyway, Anika decides to tell Hakeem about the child but before she can, Hakeem rejects her advances and tells her that he’s in love. Not with her, but with Laura, the sweet, virginal, lead singer of his girl group. It’s like a smack in the face to Anika—and Hakeem following it up with “We still homies? I think you’re dope” is enough to send anyone into a rage spiral so it’s no surprise that she’s going to take it out on Laura.

That brings us to the final rap battle, the big centerpiece of the entire episode, and a scene that is not quite 8 Mile but certainly ranks up there. Everything goes as expected: Freda has some pretty dope shots and Hakeem gets the crowd going but there’s something of an explosive twist at the end. Instead of demanding his name, Hakeem throws out his name altogether and smashes the light. He’s just Hakeem now, on his continued quest to become more of a man.