'Empire' Star Bryshere 'Yazz' Gray on Writing Music With Timbaland, His Solo Album & Why Hakeem Is Getting 'Wiser'

Christopher Fragapane/FOX
Bryshere Y. Gray as Hakeem Lyon on "Empire."

Empire season 2 is in full swing, which means more songs from the Empire Cast and executive music producer Timbaland are coming out -- and coming into your brain on replay.

On this week's episode, music legend Timbaland steps out from behind the boards and gets on an Empire track for the first time ever with "Bout 2 Blow," a moody, confident trap banger featuring his modulated vocals and verses penned by Bryshere "Yazz" Gray (Hakeem).

While filming the ninth episode of Empire's second season in Chicago, Yazz got on the phone with Billboard to talk about hitting the studio with Timb at 2 a.m., progress on his solo album and how his family got him through season 1.

So "Bout to Blow" is the first time Timbaland has officially appeared on any Empire track, right?

Yeah. This song right here is special, man. You got somebody that's been in the game a long time and he's debuting himself on Empire season 2 with Yazz. The song is great. "Bout 2 Blow," it's a crazy record that debuts on episode 3. I wrote the record and I feel good about it.

So you wrote this?

Yeah. The process was, I was filming for about 18 hours and Timbaland was the studio, making the record. Once I was done filming about 2 o'clock in the morning, I went to the studio and we created a record. Timbaland is so creative -- he just laid the beat down and made it easy for me to go in.

Was it intimidating working closely with someone who's created as many classics as him?

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Yeah, at first I was a little nervous until he said he wanted to work with me -- and that he was a fan of me, Yazz. So I was excited.

When you write for Empire, are you thinking, "let's just make a good song" or are you concerned with writing from Hakeem's perspective?

We got to write the record based on the storyline and what's going on -- and what's going on in your life. It's not like we go to the studio and think "we gotta make a club smash" or a pop record -- we make good music that fits into the storyline. That's all it is. Jussie [Smollett] and I are artists outside of the show, but this is something that makes the characters more describable.

And you have a solo deal with Columbia. Is "Bout to Blow" something that might appear on an upcoming album of yours?

Yeah, Columbia is family. They treat us good and it's good over there. I'm working on the album now. I'm always recording. I just built a recording studio in my condo [in Chicago] so I'm always recording and making beats.

Do you expect that you could have an album in 2016?

Um, I wish. Because I'm doing so much right now. I'm on tour, doing my acting thing and on top of that I'm recording. And with recording good records, you don't want to rush it. You want to take your time you, gotta build that energy [says something to another person]. I'm on set now, sorry. We're filming episode 9.  

Is the mood different on set than season 1, considering you know how wildly popular the show is?

Not really. It's just, you get put in different situations. This season you get put in situations that's on steroids. You just gotta get your moments and own your moments.

Your personal life must be different. Can you still go out and get groceries without being stopped by fans?

Yeah, I'm not foreign to it because I've been going through this since I was in high school. I get it. It's overwhelming sometimes, but I still go and get groceries and do what I want to do.

But you probably get roped into a lot of selfies.

I've had to deal with that since high school.

And you're working on movies, too.

I was in Brotherly Love, that was my first movie. I was like, an extra in it. I was focusing on my music. I just got signed to Interscope, I was touring, so acting wasn't really my first obligation -- it was music and performance. I wake up and love doing it; I could do that in my sleep. When Empire came, that shifted how I move around. I couldn't perform as much, I couldn't put a lot of music out. But at the same time, I got to be on a big show and put on a great platform. So it's good either way.

Do you think eventually you'll take some time off from acting to concentrate on music making?


What can we expect from Hakeem on the upcoming season?

You can expect Hakeem coming into his own, getting wiser and making boss moves. Not making those childish, idiotic moves he made in season 1. He's gonna surprise you. He's coming into his own. Trying to take the Empire from his brother, but it's gonna get messy. It's not going to be that easy.

Last episode featured guest star Becky G, and you and her ended up in the bathtub together. Are Hakeem and her character gonna become a thing?

You just gonna have to stick around.

Jussie also has a solo deal with Columbia. Do you guys gel musically apart from the show -- could you see doing a solo album with a feature from him?

Yeah, I love working with Jussie. That's like my brother. When we in the studio, we can be in there an hour and get two songs done. That would be an option -- if he's down for it.

What does your ideal 2016 look like?

I just want to do more of what I did last year. I'm 21 years old. I'm the youngest in the cast [laughs] and we've accomplished a lot in a year. Broke a lot of records. We had the world saying "OMG" every week. It's about us being consistent and me being humble and accepting what it is.

You have accomplished a lot at a young age. Was your family supportive of you going into showbiz?

Without my family, I probably wouldn't have made it past season 1. The fame was cracking down very hard. It was a whole 'nother level. It was hard to adjust to it and work at the same time. So I had to have my family around, they was like my shield. They made sure I stayed out of trouble.

Anything you want to add about "Bout to Blow" before I let you go back to work?

Make sure you request it on the radio station if you support Team Yazz. I love you all, all the ladies out there [laughs].

Speaking of which, is there any lady in your life?

Nope. I'm just married to Team Yazz right now.