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Empire recap: Please don't stop the music

A terrific episode serves as a reminder that Empire is best when it skips the shock drama and focuses on the music

At its best, Empire is all about the music. But it's sometimes hard to realize it when crazy drama abounds.

Cookie and Lucious pretty much hate each other. Their two musically inclined sons, rapper Hakeem and singer Jamal, are often caught in the middle. If they could only work together, Cookie's soulful production and careful ear might complement Lucious' guttural, snarling verses. But that doesn't mean much when they can't even stand to be in the same room.

Both Jamal and Hakeem make bold stands against their parents in this week's "My Bad Parts," in some of the flashiest, most thrilling scenes of the season. Refreshingly, neither had anything to do with violence. Instead, Empire became the show it always hinted at but never managed to be: one in which the music is the drama.

Jamal (and, by extension, Empire Records) is faced with a career-elevating opportunity: Pepsi is looking for a new face of the brand and a song to match. As the brand's marketing associate tells Jamal, "Music has always been part of Pepsi." (If you didn't buy that, the jingly Pepsi ad that played during every commercial break was presumably intended as a reminder.) The only catch: Pepsi needs a song within a week for Jamal to remain a contender.

Jamal ends up caught between his parents, who both bring him ideas. Lucious' song is a banger, all hard synths and thunderous percussion. Cookie's is sexy and soulful, filled with flute-driven melodies that might sound sweet in the bedroom. Neither song is quite right alone, but both has potential. Eventually, the solution becomes clear: Merge the two songs, bringing Cookie's yin to Lucious' yang.

But that means bringing his parents together. The meeting, unsurprisingly, is a disaster, leaving Cookie and Lucious arguing like the old, bitter, divorced couple they are. Their squabbling isn't just bad for the music; it's self-destructive, draining them of their power.

Cookie and Lucious' inability to get along also affects Hakeem. Ever since he and Cookie founded their own label, Lyon Dynasty, the tension between Lucious and his family has been tighter than a Timbaland beat. In "My Bad Parts," Hakeem finally takes that familiar tension public by responding to a "Takeover"-style attack rap by Lucious' newest protégé, Freda Gatz, with a challenge: a rap battle Hakeem — more showman than rapper — seems destined to lose.

The key to both Jamal and Hakeem's triumphs come when they step away from their parents. When Cookie and Lucious won't collaborate, Jamal stitches their parts together himself, then forces them to watch his dazzling performance of the stunner they could have created together.

Meanwhile, Hakeem takes Jamal's advice and uses his showmanship to trump Freda's rap skills. Instead of focusing his attacks on her, Hakeem builds himself up by going for Lucious' jugular. He renounces the Lyon name, going so far as to smash the enormous lit sign displaying it. "I go by Hakeem now," he announces.

Both moments offer the sort of edge-of-your seat thrills Empire consistently delivered in the first season but lost when it began recycling tired plotlines to remain shocking. This season, we've seen a head in a box, a corpse in a car, and Cookie in a cage. With all that, these two songs were still, bar none, the most exciting moments all year.

It's a reminder of what this show should be. What makes Empire so interesting is exactly what made its eponymous record label interesting: the music and personalities behind them. In the midst of everything that happens in "My Bad Parts," Empire drops another soapy bombshell when we learn that Anika is pregnant (surely with Hakeem's child). For most shows, that would be the headline — but in the face of so much great music, it was hard to muster up much interest.

Empire is built on music. Everything else is just noise.

Read previous Empire recaps:

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