Facts first. Spoilers ahead.
Ludacris plays a prison guard in season two of Empire. And not just any prison guard, either. He plays Lucious Lyon’s chief tormentor, Officer McKnight. So far, Officer McKnight has done the following things to Lucious: denied him necessary medication to try to force him to confess, thrown him in solitary for working on his album, and just straight up threatened his life. Somewhat lost in the portrayal of Officer McKnight as a wild man on a power trip who is hellbent on destroying Lucious just, like, because, are the facts that a) Officer McKnight’s sadistic methods aside, Lucious totally did the murder he was in there for, and b) throwing a prisoner in solitary confinement for paying off corrupt prison guards to acquire high-end musical equipment and secretly record a song in a storage closet about seeking revenge on snitches actually seems kind of reasonable? But whatever. Moving along.
Ludacris has been acting for a while now, and the show is bringing in lots of big guest stars this season (Chris Rock, Marisa Tomei), so this all makes enough sense, I suppose. It does raise an interesting question, though: Does Ludacris, the rapper, the real person, exist in the Empire universe now? To some degree, it’s the same question you have any time a known actor appears in a new role. (Does Malcolm in the Middle exist on Breaking Bad? Does The O.C. exist on Gotham?) But it’s more pronounced on Empire because Empire is constantly referencing real-life hip-hop figures and/or having them appear as themselves. There are ripple effects here, in either scenario. Join me as I leap down the rabbit hole, won’t you?
The simplest explanation here is that Ludacris exists in the Empire universe, but appearing as a prison guard will eliminate any chance of him showing up as himself to drop a verse at Leviticus with Hakeem or Jamaal or whoever is in Lucious’ devious orbit at that point. Which is fine, except for the fact that it also means there’s a prison guard in a New York facility who looks and walks and talks exactly like Ludacris. That must be so weird for the inmates. (“Yeah, so I was talking to my lawyer and he says there’s new evidence that might… that might… Yo, is that Ludacris over there?”) And wouldn’t Lucious, a prominent figure in the rap community, have picked up on it? I mean, he would have met Ludacris in person a number of times, presumably. They’d probably know each other. It would all make this moment quite a mind-bender.
But the other scenario, the It’s a Wonderful Life version in which there is no rapper named Ludacris at all in the Empire universe might be even weirder. Because if we take away Ludacris, we also have to assume the following things don’t exist either:
- All of his albums and songs.
- All of the songs he made guest appearances on, including “Yeah!” and “Gossip Folks.”
- All of the Fast & Furious films after the original, because once we wipe out 2 Fast 2 Furious — in which Ludacris officiates a jet ski race while holding a bullhorn — the whole house of cards comes down.
- The movie Crash, which means the 2006 Best Picture Oscar probably goes to Brokeback Mountain.
- This picture from the 2007 NBA All-Star Game, unless we can somehow explain how a prison guard ended up sitting courtside next to Prince and Dave Chappelle.
And so on. And each of those creates its own little butterfly effect, too, changing the course of history as it progresses through time. You can make an argument that Vin Diesel’s entire career — which was somewhat stalled post-xXx, before the Fast & Furious franchise blew up — goes up in smoke in a world with no Ludacris. And with no video for “Gossip Folks,” we also lose a few shots of that one dancing little girl. It’s almost too much, really.
Although now that I think about it, there’s actually a third scenario, and it could be the strangest of all: All of the projects other than Ludacris’ solo albums still exist, just with other people taking his spot. But in order for that to be the case, it means the creative team at Empire would have to create an entire new universe in which, say, Lupe Fiasco won the 2007 Grammy for Best Rap Album and DMX plays technology expert Tej Parker in the Fast & Furious movies. Or whatever. It would be insane. I hope they do this and spend an entire episode explaining it.