Sway Tells Us What Fox's 'Empire' Gets Right About Hip-Hop

Yes, he has listened to 'Drip Drop.'

Jamal Lyon gets put in the hot seat in tonight's episode of "Empire" when an interview with MTV's own Sway Calloway takes a very personal turn.

Fans of the hit Fox series know that Jamal (Jussie Smollett), Lucious and Cookie's gay son, has been struggling with how and when he should come out publicly. But a career-defining radio interview with Sway could force Jamal to come out sooner than he'd like when he gets asked if there's a girl in his life. "Wait until you hear how he answers it," Sway told MTV News over the phone. "It may surprise people."


According to Sway, Jamal's response was even a shock to him, who at the time, had no idea the middle Lyon was even gay. "I didn't know what the storyline was going to be. When they gave me the script, I just played myself," Sway said. "But now that I know the whole storyline -- and I know why Jamal acted the way he did -- I'm waiting to see how it all turns out. When Jussie and I were going through the lines... I figured that line had to mean something by the way he was reacting, but I didn't know at the time."

"Empire" is a bonafide hit, averaging 14 million viewers per episode, including Sway, who's been watching from the beginning. The hip-hop drama is not only the success Fox needs, but it's also the show America needs. Especially at a time when reality TV is losing its once-pleasurable luster.


"It's taking the place of reality TV," the radio host told us. "When you watch reality shows, it's all about controversy and conflict. It's always fun to watch the trainwreck, but when you know it's a reality show, it also leaves you a little sad. It's more ignorant than entertaining. But with a show like this, it's escapism. When the show goes off, you know the drama goes off. There's no residual impact. And it's just as entertaining, if not more."

Not to mention, the original music, written and produced by hitmaker Timbaland, sets "Empire" apart from its primetime competition. Even a music industry veteran like Sway couldn't get "Drip Drop" -- Hakeem's first rap single, as heard in last week's episode -- out of his head.


"Rap has gotten so accessible and saturated that an actor could come on TV and act like a rapper and do it better than those who do it as their profession," he said. "'Drip Drop' sounds just like anything you would hear on the radio today. This kid can really rap. He's Tyga, Kid Ink -- all these kids rolled into one. Back in the day, you couldn't imitate Big Daddy Kane. It would come off as corny."

As for "Empire"'s hip-hop credibility, while things are sensationalized in Lee Daniels' fictional world, the idea of overnight fame isn't too far-fetched. "When you look at Hakeem's character, he thinks he has to be this over-the-top character with chains and cars and girls, and honestly, there's a lot of artists who blew up overnight like that, thinking they had to do those things," said Sway. "That's the sad thing about the music business these days, that somebody could just make up a persona, drop a song, and be the talk of the business. The business is at that point where it's being determined by somebody who had a two-week dream."