When Empire returns Wednesday from a nearly four-month-long hiatus, the reigning queens of Empire Records, Lyon Dynasty, and Gutter Life will get their chances to shine.
While the Emmy- and Grammy-nominated series continues to anchor its chart-topping music on Jussie Smollett and Yazz — who portray heirs to the Lyon throne, Jamal and Hakeem, respectively — a peek at the track list for the soundtrack to the latter half of the season reveals more than half of the songs include Serayah McNeill (Tiana), Freda (Bre-Z), and Jamila Velazquez (Laura) either featuring or making their solo Empire debuts.
Though Velazquez has been working as an actress since she was a child, McNeill and Bre-Z were relative unknowns prior to their casting on the wildly successful Fox drama, which has taken to spotlighting up-and-coming talent as much as it enjoys tapping famous faces (Pitbull, Kelly Rowland, Snoop Dogg, etc.) for cameos.
Below, the three multihyphenate entertainers discuss what’s to come for their characters, and how music will play a role.Bre-Z (Freda)
Of all the additions to Empire‘s story-heavy second season, it’s Bre-Z’s Freda who has been among the most welcome. The Brooklyn-born rapper has provided the raw edge that both the series and the soundtracks need as her character reminds Lucious (Terrence Howard) of his dirtier hip-hop roots.
Bre-Z hopes that the latter half of season 2 will “keep that realness,” but that Freda learns to open up and transition out of that “dark space” she’s been inhabiting for so long and “learn to have a little bit more fun.”
When it comes to the music that helps to shape her character’s arc, Bre-Z says she is “pretty much 100 percent involved” in its creation. “I work alongside people like Timbaland, Ne-Yo, and [Jesse ‘”Corparal” Wilson] as far as the creative production of the song. It’s never really just one person,” Bre-Z adds. “It takes a team to create something great.”
And the fact that she’s working with such top-level producers is an opportunity that’s not lost on her. “I never thought I’d be working with people like that,” Bre-Z admits, “but I got into it and like … they respected me for what I did.”
Moving forward, this won’t be Bre-Z’s only acting gig. Now that she’s caught the bug, she’s hoping to become respected as an actress in her own right as she continues to audition for other projects outside of Empire. And yes, a non-Empire EP is coming soon.Serayah McNeill (Tiana)
Though similarly hesitant to reveal too much about the season’s upcoming soapy twists, McNeill promises that Tiana will gain a love interest sure to get her fans excited. But there might be a catch: “Tiana gets what she wants, so I don’t know if this guy is what she really wants, or if she just wants to mess with him,” she tells EW.
Unlike Bre-Z, McNeill’s collaboration with the music side of Empire is a little more hands-off. “The music is tailored to the show and what’s going on, so I don’t have too much involvement in the writing process,” she explains. However, McNeill is working on music of her own outside of the show, and she is “dying to put out a single,” but, unwilling to capitalize too soon on her sudden fame. “I just want to make sure that it’s right and the right time.”
And thanks to the show, she’s gotten a preview of what a full-time career in music might entail. “There’s a song called ‘Look But Don’t Touch’ and it just gives me a little taste of being on tour and going solo, and it was just so cool the way it came together,” she says, adding that her dancers — who have provided backup for Chris Brown, Beyoncé, and Missy Elliott, to name a few — were “amazing.” The track, written and produced by Jim Beanz, is “so catchy; I feel like the fans will love it.”Jamila Velazquez (Laura)
Velazquez was another welcome addition to the cast who, as Laura, grounds and humanizes the often reckless Hakeem. However, as the frontwoman to girl group Mirage a Trois, one of Dynasty’s most valuable assets, she’s not just Hakeem’s girlfriend — though that relationship will continue to play a huge role. “You can expect Laura to come into her own,” Velazquez promises, adding that her character’s relationship with Hakeem “is definitely going to become a little steamier and a little more serious.”
Though revealing too much about the song would spoil a major plot point in Laura’s arc, Velazquez teases she’s particularly proud of an upcoming track, which she describes as a “beautiful, empowering power ballad” that allows viewers “to see a different side of Laura, vocally.”
Empire returns to Fox on Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET. Empire: Original Soundtrack, Season 2 Volume 2 drops April 29.