Empire's second season quickly squashed any fears of a sophomore slump, somehow becoming even more delightfully bonkers than the first. And while most shows would feel overstuffed with everything Empire fits into 44 minutes, so much of the show's appeal is that it's a world of more - more drama, more fashion, more sex, more one-liners, more of everything we have in our everyday realities.
But when dead bodies are popping up in gift boxes and in prosecutor's cars, you need something real to hang onto. Last season, that was Jamal (Jussie Smollett). But as Jamal becomes more embroiled in Lucious' (Terrence Howard) game play, he's become increasingly unpredictable (and pretentious). Now, someone unexpected has stepped to anchor this season: Hakeem (Bryshere Gray).
During Empire's first season, Hakeem was kind of the worst (I say "kind of" because there was still Andre). He barely rose above the caricature of a spoiled brat with mommy issues. He was petulant, hardheaded and abrasive, while rarely giving the audience a relatable hook to hang his anger on. But this season, Keem has become the constant amidst the chaos.
Yes, Empire will always be the Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and Lucious hour. But the Lyon parents are nothing without their cubs. And frankly, I couldn't care less whether or not Andre finds his way back to Empire, and I'm more than ready for Jamal to stop being Lucious' mini me. But I find myself surprisingly invested in Hakeem's story line this season. And that's largely because he's one of the few characters right now with comprehensible motivations and admirable adversaries.
Throughout the majority of the first season, Hakeem was butting heads with Cookie and Jamal for reasons that were never more than petty. This time around, however, the writers have given Keem rational reasons for his anger towards Jamal, who seems to enjoy kicking his brother when he's down. And as Hakeem and Cookie grow closer, he also is quicker to call out Lucious, who is desperately in need of more people who aren't afraid to knock him down a peg or two.
By situating Hakeem against Empire, he becomes the underdog fighting for the support and respect most families give unconditionally. Unfortunately, the only thing that seems to earn a Lyon's respect is an outlandish display of dominance - hence the portrait stabbing and Hakeem's other childish acts of rebellion. But while his means might not be eloquent, it's easy to understand why Hakeem does what he does.
All Hakeem has ever wanted is to feel validated and loved. Yet again and again, Hakeem is given the message that nothing he does will ever be good enough and that his desires are ultimately disposable. Even the women Hakeem brings into his life - Tiana, Camilla, Valentina - become nothing more than pawns in Lucious and Cookie's game. So with his personal and home life such a mess, Hakeem now hopes to define himself by his work. And even though I think Mirage a Trois is a terrible name for a girl group, I love his plan to be the Matthew Knowles to a Latina Destiny's Child. And Hakeem is really going for it! Despite the fact that no one displays any real faith in him, Hakeem has shown some serious ambition this season and, more importantly, put in the work to back it up.
Sure, Hakeem stills does something completely idiotic now and then. But the thing is, even when Hakeem is bad, he's good. Watching Keem execute schemes or act out is a whole lot of fun because he has the same bravado that make Cookie and Lucious so electric. He brings this charisma into his music, where it quickly becomes obvious that Hakeem's cockiness isn't baseless. Jamal might have the voice of a thousand angels harmonizing, but it was Hakeem's "Drip Drop" that became the defining track of Season 1. And this season Hakeem has already delivered one of the best diss tracks of the year, despite it being a burn on a fictional character. (Seriously, Meek Mill, listen to this and take note.)
Hakeem is not the smart brother. He's not the soulful one. He's not even the hot one. But Hakeem is the fun one. He consistently delivers the best music. And whether he's acting like a brat or discovering the next Beyonce in a Linda Rondstadt cover lounge, everything Hakeem does exists in some heightened reality. And isn't that exactly what we came here for?
Empire airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on Fox.