Empire Strikes Back

I’m fairly indifferent to empires. Roman, Aztec, Ottoman — makes no difference to me. They rise. They fall.

Yet even if empires are but grains of sand wedged between the toes of time, mankind doesn’t forget the contributions of its greatest emperors. Caesar gave us his slimy salads. Montezuma gave us his revenge. The Ottomans gave us a handy place to prop our Skechers while watching Happy Days reruns.

But the Fonz would be the first to tell you that Rome wasn’t built in an aaaayyyyyyyy. It takes years, tears and a willingness to disembowel your enemies with a rusty spatula before an aspiring Julius can assume his throne. And even then, it’s only a matter of time before Brutus sticks a shiv through your toga.

Kansas City hip-hop isn’t exactly Greek drama. For one thing, there aren’t nearly as many area rappers who have killed their fathers and/or slept with their mothers as you might think. That said, few groups seem to have aspirations as lofty as, well, Empire. The group is ahead of the game, having already put in the years, the tears and the desire to piss down the throat of its nemesis.

Namely, me.

A year ago, three members of Empire — Grant Rice, S.G. and Luna — contributed to a scathing single (“Fuck Nathan Dinsdale“) written in retaliation for a less than favorable appraisal of artists — them included — affiliated with Tech N9ne and his Strange Music label.

But that was then.

Vertigo — the “supergroup” that was the primary target of my disdain — did a nose dive. Luna and S.G. emerged from the wreckage to join forces with Panic and Rice — who became estranged from Strange Music co-owner Travis O’Guin — to build Empire. The group enlisted Mike Savage — the “New Kid” from Johnny Dare‘s radio show — as its manager and recorded a debut disc, Crowned, which received its coronation last week at an album-release show at the Grand Emporium.

This is now.

“This is one of the best hip-hop CDs I’ve ever heard,” Shawn Edwards gushed before Empire took the stage. “And I didn’t preface that with local … this is one of the best hip-hop CDs I’ve ever heard.”

Take a grain of salt — hell, take two entire salt licks — and call me in the morning.

Edwards — Fox 4 movie gadfly, KC Call contributor and permanent president of the Shawn Edwards Fan Club — is fed by an inexhaustible intravenous drip of hyperbole. But he wasn’t as wrong about Crowned as he was about, say, White Chicks (“the funniest movie of the year”). The album is solid. S.G. — who produced most of the Crowned — crafts some head-bobbing beats, and his cohorts (Panic in particular) flaunt some inspired flows. The album distinguishes the four as loco vatos all their own and loosens the perpetual liplock that many Strange Music protégés have on Tech N9ne’s jock.

“Make some noise for the baddest motherfuckers in Kansas City,” Edwards howled. “E to the M to the P to the I to the R to the E! Em-pirrrrrrrre!”

Hold the phone.

OK, so the trilling cattle call owes a certain debt to Tech Niiiiiiiiiinnne. As do many other elements of the group’s stage show — the chrome-plated-tricycle props, the I-just-ate-a-human-fetus glares. But when the foursome launched into tracks such as “Do What I Do,” it was evident that Empire has taken Tech’s tricks — energy, presence and marketing savvy — and injected them with enough individuality to pass off as its own.

But the Emperors also raised the ante by employing live percussion and even electric guitar — courtesy of Intent‘s Tyler Lyon — to create the kind of rock-show energy that Tech has mastered, packaged and sold to the suburban fan base crucial to carrying a local act beyond food stamps.

That’s not to say Empire’s live performance was flawless. The combination of live instruments and relentless backing tracks frequently overwhelmed the actual verses. And, despite two encores, the set finished just this side of 40 minutes. But the group kept the show interesting, with Rice diving into the crowd and Luna pounding on an empty beer keg with a baseball bat. They almost started a mosh pit during “Bricks.”

Granted, this wasn’t an entirely bipartisan audience. But when the stage lights flickered, then extinguished completely during “Pot of Gold,” Empire showed poise, didn’t miss a beat and continued rhyming in the dark until the house lights came on to reveal a sizable contingent of fans waving their hands in the air and singing along to the chorus Chasing rainbows to find a pot of gold/A pot of gold, I need a pot of gold in my life.

A pot of gold indeed.

Hip-hop is a get-rich-quick scheme. Drop rhymes. Sign contracts. Buy houses. Fuck bitches. Repeat. That’s the Cliffs Notes version of the arc that most burgeoning rappers anticipate their career will take. But sorry, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. No single magic bullet — or nine, in 50 Cent‘s case — that will propel someone to superstardom.

Everyone wants to sit on Jay-Z‘s throne, sip from Snoop‘s chalice and lord over all they have conquered. They want to build their own empire. Empire has thus far built nothing but paper castles. Together they are stronger than the sum of their parts. The group members have good energy, reasonable talent and uncommon savvy. But how many shows have they actually played? How many hostile crowds have they actually tamed? How many albums have they actually sold?

That’s what I thought.

Empire has taken strides to distinguish itself from the other small fish in this small pond. That’s step one. But it’s going to take a lot more before history remembers Empire’s name.

But have patience, fellas. Like the man said, it wasn’t built in a day.

Categories: Music