By Ali Barthwell
Empires aren’t built by the cautious. Empires are built by the daring and brazen. Whether it’s industry, technology, or even conquering the entire known world, it takes a badass to make it big. Empire follows the Lyon family, a family of musicians and music executives inspired by some of the biggest, boldest names in music, and the trials and tribulations of building and protecting their own empire, Empire Records.
The trouble with empires is they’re always on the verge of being attacked. Season 3 of Empire saw an assault on Empire Records come very close to its complete and utter destruction. A tenuous Vegas deal, the FBI, and former lovers crawling out of the shadows all threatened the record company Cookie and Lucious sacrificed and struggled to build. But the biggest menace to the Lyon family was itself.
By the end of season 3, the Lyons had found their way back together, united by a new business venture and “Cucious,” Cookie and Lucious, were rekindling their relationship. But just when it seemed like the Lyons had everything they could want: creative control, a tight family unit, and a slew of successful albums on the way, it all got blown up… So how did the Lyon family end up stronger than ever only to see it go up in flames? And where might they go from here?
The linchpin for the Lyon family is Lucious, larger than life and a possible megalomaniac. At the beginning of last season, Lucious was scrambling to protect his family during the fallout from Hakeem’s failed wedding to Laura and trying to stay a step ahead of the FBI and his half-brother, Tariq. He’d married Anika aka Boo Boo Kitty to prevent her from testifying against him, but alienating Cookie once and for all. All while launching his digital streaming platform, Empire XStream, which promised exclusive access to Empire Records artists and content.
But viewers didn’t know that he was launching his final and largest effort to win Cookie back. His affair with Giuliana (played by Nia Long) to secure the Vegas property felt at times like a detour and Lucious seemed to relish any opportunity to throw his new relationship in Cookie’s face. Even though he was certainly enjoying being between Nia Long’s thighs, Lucious was working toward setting his ex-wife up with the greatest gift of all: a secure future for their company and their children.
Empire creators referenced Jay-Z as an inspiration for Lucious and it’s not hard to see some of the parallels between the two titans of hip-hop. Empire XStream was compared to TIDAL both on the show and in reviews of the show. Although there are professional parallels between the two men, it’s the personal lines that give us a clue as to who Lucious is. They were both raised by single mothers in tough cities; Jay-Z in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn and Lucious in North Philadelphia, both selling drugs to support themselves and their families. Season 3 gave us flashbacks of Cookie and Lucious’ courtship, with Cookie playing the good girl drawn to the bad boy. Jay-Z and Beyoncé have volunteered details about their relationship in their creative work while staying quiet in interviews and public appearances. From Beyoncé’s vulnerable magnum opus Lemonade to Jay-Z admitting that their relationship wasn’t built on complete honestly, the last year for Jay-Z was one of emotional reckoning. He used his album 4:44 to lay bare his flaws and shortcomings and take responsibility for his infidelity and the stress he caused in the relationship.
Lucious found himself face to face with losing Cookie forever to another man: Angelo DuBois, a clean-cut, bougie politician played by Taye Diggs. By the end of the season, Lucious realized that Empire exists largely because of Cookie’s sacrifices, and she deserved a stable kind of love. He was ready to step down from running the company to travel the world with Cookie, recommit to her, and allow their children to finally inherit the company (resolving the very issue that had torn the family apart several times over the course of the show). Jay-Z spoke about building something for his children on 4:44 and Lucious was ready to walk down that path toward emotional accountability and honesty and allowing his children to finally create their own legacy without casting a shadow over them.
Unfortunately, a trap was laid for Lucious by one of his own sons, and Lucious ends up in the hospital— with amnesia, and now having to rebuild his relationship with his family.
Cookie is more than just Lucious’ long suffering ex-wife/babymoms/ride or die; she’s the backbone of Empire Records, whose sacrifice allowed for its creation. At the start of season 3, she’s been dealt her most humiliating blow yet: watching Lucious marry Anika to protect the business from an FBI investigation. Though her personal life may be in shambles, she’s finally gaining some control at Empire Records when Lucious demands his company back. His? With no choice, she declares full-on war against Lucious.
In the previous season, Cookie fights to have her own life. So many of her accomplishments have been either swept under the rug or claimed by Lucious as his own. The inspiration for Cookie is Lydia Harris. Harris might be remembered, if she’s remembered at all, as the wife of the co-investor of Death Row Records, Michael “Harry-O” Harris, a drug kingpin who wanted to go legit by investing over a million dollars in Death Row Records and Suge Knight. Harry-O was in prison at the time, so Lydia was his proxy on the outside. Through flashbacks, Cookie and Lucious’ early working relationship revealed him as the charismatic performer who used what little marketing knowledge he gleaned from selling drugs, while she did everything else.
Lydia Harris ultimately sued Suge Knight for her half of the company, which she insisted was separate from any arrangements her husband had with Suge Knight. In Cookie’s battle for recognition, she parades Lucious’ mother at his album announcement showcase as evidence of his fabricated biography that was integral to his music. Cookie schemes with her son, Andre, to let Lucious develop a casino property in Las Vegas so they can reap the rewards for themselves.
But most of all, Cookie struggles to establish a personal life and a fulfilling relationship outside of Lucious’ toxic web. Lucious was the first man Cookie had ever loved, so separating from him proved incredibly difficult, but her relationship with Angelo DuBois was a step in the right direction. Angelo reminded Cookie of her childhood sweetheart, back when she was still a good girl who wasn’t interested in chasing bad boys. Their relationship moved slowly, until Cookie eventually embraced being able to connect Angelo to voters outside his bougie social circle. But the meddling of Angelo’s mother, the formidable Diana DuBois (played by Phylicia Rashad), and increasing pressure to behave like she’s in the perfect relationship caused the whole thing to fall apart (during a public proposal on television no less).
The memories evoked by Jamal’s album, based on Cookie and Lucious’ relationship, softened Cookie’s heart, even though Lucious was restarting an affair with Giuliana, a sultry crime boss who was opening doors for Lucious in Vegas. At the end, Lucious shut Giuliana out of the deal and presented Cookie with what she’s always wanted: a relationship built on true partnership and acknowledging every part of her and her contributions.
Unfortunately, after Lucious saves her life by pushing her out of the way of a car bomb, he wakes up with amnesia and has no idea who she is. Will Cookie make like Lydia Harris and cash out or nurse Lucious back to health and hope that they can pick up where they left off? This season presents the perfect opportunity for Cookie to create her own legacy. But will she?
Out of all the Lyon children, the Ivy League-educated Andre would be the one to issue a near-fatal blow to his father. With his wife, Rhonda, he schemed his way to Empire Records going public and its continued success. Even though he has a mind for business and is willing to do whatever it takes to help Empire triumph, his lack of musical talent—and struggles with bipolar disorder—has always made him a lesser-than to his siblings. Still, Andre can move between the hip-hop world and the finance world like record exec and author Steve Stoute, who’s personal life, fortunately, isn’t littered with tragedy like Andre’s.
The beginning of season 3 leads to the destruction of Andre’s mental state when Anika throws his wife off a roof in a moment of self-defense. Rhonda was attacking Anika because she figured out that Anika was the one who shoved her down the stairs, causing Rhonda to miscarry. Andre suffers a mental break that causes him to see visions of his wife, encouraging him to continue cheating and scheming to get what they want. When Andre turns against his father for not appreciating him and inadvertenly contributing to his wife’s death, he teams up with Shine Johnson, Lucious’ long time frenemy, who’s been circling around Empire Records, ready for the perfect chance to strike.
Lucious hands the keys of the company over to Andre, who then scrambles to undo the trap he’s set for Lucious. Unable to make Shine and his gangsters stand down, Andre witnesses his father get blown up by a car bomb. This season, Andre has to live with the fact that he almost killed his father and gave him amnesia, and recognizing that his lifelong drive to take over the company and be recognized has led to not only possibly wiping out any chance for the company’s success but also destroying any opportunity to earn his father’s respect and love.
The formative moment in Jamal Lyon’s life is when his father threw him in a trash can for dressing in his mother’s clothes when he was six years old. Cookie saved him from that humiliation, and mother and son have shared an alliance ever since. Even when Cookie was in prison, she would tell Jamal that she accepted him even before he knew what she meant.
Jamal’s identity as a gay man has led to comparisons to recording artist, Frank Ocean. Ocean came out as bisexual after the release of his album Channel Orange. The album was a watershed moment for LGBTQ+ issues in the Black community as well as homophobia in the music industry. When the series began, Jamal was reluctant to come out publicly because of his father’s reaction and insistence that his audience wouldn’t accept him. Ocean has a reputation for being sensitive and almost reclusive. Similarly, Jamal’s battle with PTSD in season 3 lead him to withdraw from the public eye.
After taking a bullet for his father at the end of season 2, Jamal suffers from PTSD, which drives him to misuse prescription drugs and alcohol and leads to a stint in rehab. There he connects with Tory Ash, played by Rumer Willis, who helps him discover a more raw and emotional side to his music. His self-reflection leads him to appreciate his mother’s influence on his career and how her relationship with Lucious stunted her own achievement. Unfortunately, Lucious is working on a bombastic album, Inferno, that he’s positioning to compete with Jamal’s creative work.
Jamal and his album are chosen to headline the new Vegas casino, and he’s finally given the opportunity to be the musical face of Empire Records. With the release of Blonde and the accompanying visual components, Frank Ocean graduated to icon status. With Lucious out of commission, will Jamal continue to shine outside of Lucious’ shadow?
Hakeem Lyon is the youngest Lyon brother and the one following Lucious’ footsteps as a rapper. He’s a heartthrob to his young fans but a troublemaker to everyone else. He’s not seen as responsible enough to run the company. Even after his bold move to launch the offshoot Lyon Dynasty with Cookie in season 2, Empire’s Board of Directors saw him as a liability and quickly voted him out of power. Because of his raw talent, Lucious tries to mentor him, reining in his wild side while managing his projects.
In addition to his immaturity, Hakeem’s womanizing (again, just like his father) causes problems for the family. His relationships with fellow Empire artists, like Tiana, Laura, and Valentina, cause friction among the ranks while also jeopardizing his career: The now-deceased Camilla Marks tried to insinuate herself into his world to take advantage of his position as Empire Records CEO; his immaturity, along with his family’s criminal ties, lead to his fiancée, Laura Calleros to leave him at the altar at the end of season 2.
But ultimately, it’s his dalliance with Anika that has not only caused the largest shockwaves, but also blessed him with his baby, Bella. In the first season, his anger at his father caused him to take revenge by sleeping with Anika (who was also enraged at Lucious). At the start of season 3, Lucious claims Bella as his own to sell the fraud marriage to the FBI and prevent Anika from testifying against the family. After a run-in with the law that’s caught on an Empire XStream live stream, Jamal scolds Hakeem to be more responsible because they all have more to lose. Hakeem commits to being a better father to Bella but his family’s enemies get in the way of his commitment when Bella is kidnapped by the DuBois family. To get his daughter back, Hakeem makes a deal with the DuBois family at the close of the season, leaving him indebted to them and poised to betray his family.
Hakeem was inspired by Romeo Miller aka Lil Romeo. Both of their fathers are rappers but Romeo has managed to avoid the drama in his life and career, attending college on a basketball scholarship and enjoying a successful TV and film career.