As Hakeem on Empire, Bryshere “Yazz” Gray is a brash, confident, up-and-coming rapper with the world at his feet. In real life, he’s a little more muted, a little more reserved, but no less driven to succeed in an industry that, thanks to the massive success of the Fox drama, has opened its doors and provided a sudden wealth of opportunities enviable to any young rapper. On the first volume of the original soundtrack for season 2 of Empire (out now), veteran rapper-producer Timbaland acts as executive music producer, and Ne-Yo, J.R. Rotem, and Swizz Beatz appear as album producers.
Unlike the first Empire cast soundtrack — which beat out Madonna’s Rebel Heart on the charts upon its release in March — Yazz can now count himself as part of the impressive pedigree behind the series’ musical output; he co-wrote “Bout 2 Blow” featuring himself and Timbaland, arguably one of the hottest tracks found on Season 2, Vol. 1. Now that he’s beginning to contribute to the sound behind Empire, we caught up with Yazz, 22, to get a feel for the music that inspires him as part of EW’s Soundtrack of My Life series.
THE FIRST ALBUM I BOUGHT WITH MY OWN MONEY: The Roots, Organix
Yazz was 16 years old when he bought Organix, which was released the same year he was born.
THE FIRST ALBUM I EVER WORE OUT: Jay Z, The Blueprint
And when Yazz was 18, he listened to Jay Z’s The Blueprint nearly to the point of wearing it out.
THE ARTIST THAT HAS MOST INSPIRED ME: Nas
“He’s a lyrical poet,” Yazz says of Nas, the artist who has most inspired him. “What he raps about is inspiring, it’s not just trendy. That’s what I love about him.”
THE FIRST TIME I EVER PERFORMED LIVE: Jay Z’s Made in America Festival
Yazz tells EW that he first began performing live when he was just 16 years old on the street outside an H&M in his native Philadelphia. Humble beginnings, to be sure, but his first professional gig came not long after: Jay Z’s 2013 Made in America festival. “Jay Z and his foundation gave me the opportunity to open for Wiz Khalifa. That stage was a good platform for me to practice my rapping skills,” he says, admitting that he was “a little nervous. It was a big crowd, and it was a very new thing for me.” He didn’t get to talk to Jay afterward, unfortunately, but perhaps they’ll get to meet should Jay ever join Empire‘s impressive roster of guest stars? “Or maybe he’ll do something on my album.” Even better.
THE ALBUM THAT REMINDS ME OF MY FIRST LOVE: Usher, Here I Stand
Yazz demurs on any specific song that reminds him of his first love, but says that Usher’s entire fifth studio album sticks out. “It was put together so perfectly and was so well-thought-out,” he says, adding that it was “great music at that time period in my life.”
THE SONG I’M MOST PROUD OF: TBA …
Following the massive success of Empire last spring, Yazz was signed as a solo artist to Columbia Records in addition to his commitment to Empire. So, while he can’t yet name the song he’s most proud of, he says that he’s “so happy” with his solo label debut as it’s coming together. “The music is phenomenal.”
MY GO-TO KARAOKE JAM
Yazz keeps it close to home in choosing his go-to karaoke jam: “Keep It Movin’ ” featuring Serayah McNeill and the man himself. “What a good time that was,” he says.
THE MUSIC I LIKE THAT MIGHT SURPRISE PEOPLE: The Beatles
Finally, though his musical inspirations lie fairly clearly within the realm of hip-hop and R&B, there is an outlier. Yazz tells EW that the music he likes that might surprise people is “The Beatles. Yeah, cleaning up the house, walking the dog … Love The Beatles.”