In just seven weeks Empire, FOX's freshman melodrama set in and around the hip-hop side of the music industry, has risen to become the biggest show of 2015 so far. You think broadcast networks are dead in the water? Tell that to Empire, which continues to surpass its own series debut record-shattering numbers. The industry side of things may take a layman's approach, but numbers don't lie. It's hot in the streets, perhaps because its colorful cast of characters, an ensemble led by Terrence Howard and a scenery-chewing Taraji P. Henson, keep things entertaining with crazy soap operatic antics ready-made to keep your Twitter timeline on fire during the live airing and entertainment blogs alight the next morning.
And while Taraji's no-fucks-given matriarch Cookie is the breakout, the whole cast vibrates, including her and Lucious Lyon's (Howard) youngest son: Hakeem Lyon. As played by Bryshere Gray, himself an aspiring rapper named Yazz The Great, Hakeem is Empire's answer to the likes of Tyga and Kid Ink—brash, young, bratty, and undeniably dominating with club-ready bangers like "Drip Drop," the show's song that blew up so big it has viewers wishing it was played on the radio IRL. Empire has one month's worth of episodes left, so we hopped on the phone with Bryshere/Yazz to reflect on success so far and tease what's next.
What do you think it is about the show that’s hitting so well with such a large audience each week?
The storyline. Lee Daniels and Danny Strong are amazing at what they do. The storyline is so honest. It describes each character to the fullest.
What would you say to people who argue that the show isn’t depicting hip-hop accurately?
Everything is not for everybody. If you don't like it, you don’t have to listen to it. But at the end of the day, we’re working with phenomenal producers, and I’m honored to be affiliated with them. It’s great music, and it’s not for everybody, but the people who love it really really love it, so it’s great.
The biggest song to blow up so far over these past 6 or 7 episodes was “Drip Drop.” Can you talk about what went into creating that song?
“Drip Drop” is a wonderful song. We’re working with the best of the best, so it’s only gonna put you at that level. It was fun to create “Drip Drop.” If you really understand what that song means as a female, you turn up to it [Laughs].
Can you talk to me about the songwriting process for the show?
It’s fun. I’ll be working 18 hours on set and I’ll get a text saying, “You gotta shoot down to the studio and record for 4 hours,” and that’s what I do. It’s challenging but I love it.
Which rapper in real life do you think Hakeem correlates to the most?
Cookie is definitely the breakout character from the show. What’s it like being on set with Taraji when she's in that mode?
I love cookie, and I love Taraji. She's like the big sister I never had. I can talk to her about anything, and she's always willing to help me on set and give me great advice. Whatever I need, she makes sure that I’m comfortable. Hakeem and Cookie constantly bump heads, but we make sure our real life relationship doesn't get into that stuff.
What was it like filming the broom scene from the pilot?
It was my first scene ever filming. That’s an iconic history moment right there.
You’ve also been spending a lot of time on set with Naomi Campbell. What’s that like?
She's an iconic super model, and it’s an honor to be working with her because she's somebody who I idolize. She’s beautiful and talented.
Talk to me about her character’s relationship with your character.
Hakeem has a thing for older women. With his mom not being in his life for 17 years, he's emotionally and mentally hurt by that, so he goes out and loves older women because he gets this type of affection that he hasn't gotten from his mother. So he found this woman Camilia and he's deeply in love with her, and gets some type of security from her.
Can we expect her and Cookie to have a showdown in the last few episodes?
Maybe so. Maybe in the next episode coming up.
Your character has loud clothes on all the time. Do you pull influence from the style of modern-day rappers or is there a costume department making all those calls?
Me and Rita Mcgee get to collaborate on styles and looks for Hakeem. That’s something that I get to be creative on, just like the music side or the acting part of it. I’m getting this chance to create and style my own character.
Which rappers are you pulling influences from, both in dressing and Hakeem’s rapping style?
The dressing is definitely from me. I just made it more young. Hakeem is 19 and I’m 21, so I’m wearing less chains and less colorful stuff.
Who are your musical influences?
I grew up on Black Thought, Nas, Jay Z, and Michael Jackson.
What are your plans for Yazz?
Man, I’ll be in Brazil somewhere with my feet up, just relaxing. Empire is a full commitment. I’m doing press, recording my album, doing auditions for other roles, but I’m young and enjoying every second of it.
What can we expect your album to sound like? Will the sound be similar to “Drip Drop”?
That’s the thing with working with Timbaland. It could be hip-hop one week and the next week is pop or rock. It’s all types of music, but you’re gonna enjoy it.
So you're working with Timbaland on your own project?
Yeah, I’m hoping to have Timbaland, Pharrell [Laughs], I don’t know… I’m pushing it, but that’s my goal.
When can we expect the album?
There are so many things happening at the moment, so whenever it drops, I’ll let you know. Be on the lookout for the soundtrack dropping in a couple weeks.
Let's talk about the drunken video Hakeem filmed about Barack Obama...
We’ve gotten a lot of negative backlash. It was a powerful scene. Hakeem was just being who he is: a young spoiled kid who’s just trying to get attention doing dumb things. That scene was very challenging, but as an actor you have to convey things you may not want to do personally. You have to be honest with your character.
Are you drawing any inspiration from real-life rapper kids?
I don’t do my own work and try to study kids that grew up spoiled, no. I definitely just go into a mental state of being spoiled and being hurt. The best state of creating is not knowing, and that’s how I approach everything.
Give us a tease for what to expect for the last month of Empire.
Get ready for family drama, chilling, great music, and sex. Get ready for the next four episodes. You’re gonna cry, bite your nails… Just make sure you have your popcorn ready.