Status Ain't Hood

Status Ain’t Hood: The Beautiful Absurdity Of Empire’s Prison Rap Scene

Terrence Howard’s place in rap history would’ve been safe if he’d quit after “Whoop That Trick.” In the 2005 movie Hustle & Flow, Howard played Djay, a Memphis pimp trying to go straight by turning to a rap career. And in the movie’s best scene, he’s holed up in a homemade studio, egg crates taped on the walls, with sweaty awkward white guy DJ Qualls playing a producer and Anthony Anderson playing his overexcited manager. Together, the three of them, in two minutes flat, bang out a head-slam crunk anthem called “Whoop That Trick,” and it’s the song that goes on to be Djay’s signature track, the thing that guards rap at him when he (spoiler) goes back to prison at the end of the movie. Now: The scene is patently absurd. Rap recording sessions don’t look like that, even at the most DIY level. You don’t rap over the song while the producer is still making the beat; that’s crazy. You don’t invite your hooker employees in so that they can help chant the hook when you’re finishing up; that’s even more ridiculous. But it’s fun to watch, and Howard acquits himself nicely when delivering the song, his voice a grizzled rhythmic blurt that actually works in a Memphis rap context. Longtime Memphis underground fixture Al Kapone wrote the song, and it still gets played at Grizzlies games.

The next year, Three 6 Mafia’s DJ Paul and Juicy J, as well as their collaborator Frayser Boy, won an Oscar for writing the Hustle & Flow track “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp,” and that was a great moment. But “Whoop That Trick” is the better song, and I persist in believing that it didn’t get the Oscar because Oscar producers were afraid of using the big annual telecast to promote trick-whooping. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember a non-rapping actor doing a better job rapping in a movie, unless we’re going with something ridiculous like Dan Akroyd and Tom Hanks on “City Of Crime,” from Dragnet.

Terrence Howard got his own Oscar nomination for Hustle & Flow, presumably for reasons that went beyond his rapping skills. And for a while, that seemed like it would be the unquestioned highlight of his career. Things started to go badly for Howard not long after. He turned up in the first Iron Man, as the character who would become War Machine, but he got into some kind of squabble with the producers, and Don Cheadle had replaced him by the time the second movie came around. He was in a lot of bad movies: Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, Idlewild, Sabotage. The brief moment when he seemed to be a movie star decisively ended. For years, he faced a long string of domestic violence accusations and arrests for bizarre behavior, like assaulting a flight attendant after she insisted that he put his seatbelt on. Those allegations haven’t stopped since Howard’s career picked back up again. But by now, it has absolutely picked back up, and that’s all because of Empire.

Since Empire is a runaway surprise smash, pulling in more ratings than anything this side of a Republican primary debate, chances are good that you already know the particulars. But if you need a refresher: Howard plays the excellently named Lucious Lyon, a rapper and musician and record-label mogul who, at the beginning of the first season, realizes that he’s dying of ALS and that he’ll have to pass his label on to one of his three sons. I’m not exactly sure what sort of rapper Lucious is supposed to be. His career arc has parallels with Jay Z, moving from drug-dealing and recording in shitty makeshift studios to becoming fabulously, insanely wealthy. But the music he makes is weirdly sticky and slick: A grown-and-sexy Broadway approximation of rap. On the show, you see him noodling around with guitars or pianos (Howard himself is a self-taught musician), but you never see him scribbling lyrics on a legal pad. A signature Lucious Lyon hit is something like “You’re So Beautiful,” which is really more plot device than song. (His son Jamal publicly comes out, against Lucious’ wishes, when he performs his own version of the song, with pronouns switched around.) The original version of “You’re So Beautiful” is an overproduced bluesy flutter with a tiny bit of rapping, and it’s hard to imagine it being a hit in this season or any other. There’s a tiny bit of rapping in it, but not much, so who the fuck even knows why Lucious is supposed to be a hip-hop icon in the first place. If he has any real-world parallel musically, it’s probably goddam Wyclef.

But on last week’s show, things changed. For the season’s first two episodes, Lucious has been in jail, awaiting trial for murder. (Long story.) And on last week’s episode, a few prison allies and one bought-and-paid-for guard arranged a little recording session: Lucious in one out-of-the-way prison room rapping furiously. The scene is one of the most insane things in the history of this deeply insane television show. Once again, the producer is making the beat while the goddam song is being recorded. Lucious is waving the mic around in front of his own face without it affecting the quality of the vocals. Backing vocalist Petey Pablo is singing in AutoTune even though he doesn’t have a goddam microphone. The hulking muscle guy bangs on barrels, and it’s all supposed to be urgent and raw, but it still comes out as overproduced as everything else on this show. (Timbaland his the show’s primary music guy, and so all the music sounds suspiciously like something present-day out-of-touch Timbo would make.) And yet it’s still urgent and raw, mostly because of Howard’s intense, crazy-rap-hands performance. It’s just riveting television.

In so many ways, this was that “Whoop That Trick” scene all over again. For one thing, the episode itself was something of a Hustle & Flow reunion, with Empire regulars Howard and Taraji P. Henson (so great as Lucious’ ex-wife Cookie) joined by Ludacris, playing an abusive prison guard for some reason. It also had the churning beat, the chanted hook, and the near-silent white guy who’s inexplicably good at making beats. (In this case, it’s an Australian gentleman whose hands, on the keyboard and beat machine, don’t seem to have much relationship with the music that’s coming out.) And once again, Howard came out with a weirdly feverish and great rap song, one that transcends its goofy-as-fuck concept. The idea of a jailed rap mogul cranking out a song in some neglected prison stock room is ridiculous enough. The idea that the song would be that good pushes it into pure, beautiful insanity.

As it turns out, the song has a pretty great backstory, too. As Vulture reports, Petey Pablo wrote the song, and a few others, for Howard this season, and Howard got him the job on the show (both as an actor and a songwriter) to pay back an old debt. Pablo, an underrated rapper who had a couple of huge hits during the early-’00s era when he was a Timbaland protege, has been off the map for some time — doing time on Suge Knight’s attempted-reboot Death Row, then doing actual prison time. 10 years ago, Pablo loaned Howard $200 at a Hustle & Flow premiere party after Howard lost his wallet. Pablo never heard back, but then Howard called Pablo earlier this year, offering him the Empire job. (He also paid back the debt, with a whole lot of interest, giving Pablo $1500.)

I love the idea that a future episode could conceivably include some sort of Petey Pablo/Ludacris prison rap battle, or that this could lead to a full-on Petey Pablo revival. Even if that doesn’t happen, though, that scene, in all its unapologetic and glorious impossibility, is one of the best things I’ve seen on TV all year. I’ve been thinking about it for the entire last week. And more than cannibalistic drug lord Chris Rock or predatory-lesbian billionaire Marisa Tomei, it’s what’s going to keep me watching this crazy fucking show.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. Young Chop – “Around My Way” (Feat. Vic Mensa & King 100 James)
Remember when Wale showed up on Waka Flocka Flame’s “No Hands” and did thundering Southern strip-club rap really well? And if you were like me, you were like, “Wait, he can do this?” But then he never did that again and he sucks now? That’s how I feel about Vic Mensa on this brutalist drill monster. Except this time, I fully believe Mensa will do more of this and that he won’t suck in a few years.

2. Lushlife – “Body Double”
This Philadelphia rapper/producer sounds like he’s inhaled the internet whole and like he sees no contradiction in spitting classicist East Coast neck-snap raps over smeared-out chillwave synth-shimmers. I can’t wait to hear it without Ezra Koenig talking before the intro.

3. Your Old Droog – “The Dustiest”
God bless any buzzy rapper willing to talk about wearing the same shoes for years at a time. And God bless any funny rapper smart enough to cut his song off before it stops being funny.

4. Nocando – “Alaska”
A wordy rap song about depression and social isolation that never scans as emo-rap because the swagger is still there. Do you know how rare that is? That’s rare.

5. Lil Nardy – “I Know” (Feat. Spank Lee)
Nardy is from Mobile, Alabama, and that’s really all I know about him. But as long as he’s making tense, grizzled, cathartic Southern underground rap like this, I don’t really need to know any more.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO