“I write most of my music now in the airplane.”
So says the dude grinning across from me on a July afternoon at Manhattan gluten-free haven Friedman’s. We’re hiding in a booth at the tail end of the restaurant, though a few customers do manage to sneak back here long enough to ask “Are you…?” before his entourage shoos them away. It’s the middle of a stuffed press day and the man born Willie Maxwell doesn’t order anything, while my own burger and fries grow cold over an hour of mesmerizing conversation with 2015’s biggest new rap star. Airplanes are just one of the many recent adjustments of his improbable life. So is actually writing his music; around this time last year, Maxwell freestyled everything but the hooks. He spends a little more time on his songs now.
The world knows him better as Fetty Wap (a spin on the moniker of his incarcerated hero, Gucci Mane, a.k.a. Guwop), the beaming underdog whose unstoppable, lightning-in-a-Rémy-Martin-bottle hit “Trap Queen” introduced him in six friendly words — “I said hey-what’s-up-hello” — that for all intents and purposes will go down as 2015’s “Call me Ishmael” or, if you prefer, its “Hey, I just met you.” His untrained sing-rapping voice is unmistakable and distinct even in a landscape drenched in near-constant output from Auto-Tune titans like Future and Young Thug. And some have already anointed the Bonnie and Clyde-esque smash as the “greatest love song of our time,” due to its surprising gender equality for both trapping and rapping. Even early-‘90s rhyme legend MC Lyte recently called Fetty “the most feminist artist in hip-hop,” which is a slippery slope since he’s a guy, but also isn’t being entirely disputed.
Named for a stray term he cribbed from Gucci’s 2006 song “Trap Gurl,” the titular paramour is the narrator’s equal in his crack business, not a prop or a mob wife, and they hit the strip club together to celebrate their earnings. She even takes a turn on the pole; her strength as both a literal partner-in-crime and a kinky exhibitionist has been duly noted across America. As has Fetty’s recognition of these qualities: “Man, I swear I love her,” is just nice to hear on the radio next to, say, Justin Bieber struggling to figure out his girl’s feelings. Fetty puts her on a throne but definitely not a pedestal.
But the world has unexpectedly put the 24-year-old on one himself, and he quickly makes it clear what his least favorite part of the spotlight is.
“I used to be able to just drive from my house to my child’s mom’s house,” Fetty says. “Now it’s like, ‘I’m in California. Is everything alright? Because I can’t get there until six hours later.’”
Originally uploaded to Fetty’s SoundCloud account in March of 2014, “Trap Queen” was already making waves this past February when Kanye West booked the Jersey rapper at Roc City Classic for a performance that Jay Z and Beyoncé memorably danced to. But then it wasn’t just hip-hop taking notice; he was flown to the MTV Movie Awards at Los Angeles’ Nokia Theatre in April to perform his signature song with Fall Out Boy. The YouTube video for “Trap Queen” crept up past 300 million views. And in August, pop’s be-all end-all, Taylor Swift, brought him out as a surprise guest at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field to perform the track on the biggest tour of her career. All of this attention was even before his very first album, the self-titled Fetty Wap, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200; all of this was for the man’s second song ever, a freewheeling, sung-rapped perpetual motion machine that sounds suspiciously made up as it goes along. I ask if it was. Fetty hums the tune’s circular melody once more before confirming: “Basically… yeah.”
Unleashed at the end of September, the hour-plus warblefest Fetty Wap never strays from his distinctive style of ouroboros-like melodies of uncommon stickiness quavered in varying, near-psychedelic cadences. The album is like a thought experiment: What if someone made a rap record with nothing but hooks, just strung together like Christmas lights, one after another? It contains more than half a dozen songs at least as infectious as “Trap Queen” and may be 2015’s catchiest record, period. That’s not merely adoring hyperbole; before the record was even out, three more smash pre-album singles — “My Way,” “679” and “Again” — made Fetty the first chart-entering rapper ever to have four songs simultaneously occupy the top ten on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs. (And Fetty Wap’s “RGF Island” and “Jugg” have since charted as well.)
Few music biz overnight successes these days are as literally 0-to-100 as Fetty Wap’s; think the Pretenders discovering Violent Femmes when they were busking, and you’re still not close. Rappers tend to build a base for years via mixtapes and famous cosigns before they get a shot at the spotlight. Fetty had a handful of each, but at warp speed. He probably thought the chance to hop on Gucci’s “Still Selling Dope” back in May was as far as he had to go.
Legendary rap A&R man and 300 Entertainment founder Lyor Cohen, 55, explains the difference between Fetty’s 2014 and 2015 aptly via phone: “We’ve got an ad that’s dropping on Empire, and when [Fetty] addresses the audience he says, ‘Last year I had no address. This year I have five. Thank you.’ It made the hair on the back of my head stand up.”
As a teen, Fetty had two computers so he could download everything his hyper-prolific “number-one favorite artist” Gucci Mane ever did on the console-slowing Limewire. Likewise, he conceived his signature hit over a free, burbling instrumental nicked from the website of Belarusian producer Tony Fadd. Beyond that, he couldn’t tell you how he stumbled on and mastered his distinct groaning singsong or where he plans to go with it next. Though he quickly learned to come up with a press-sating, makeshift name for his genre-evading style: ignorant R&B.
“I came up with that term when someone was trying to ask me to describe my music,” he says. “I didn’t want to disrespect hip-hop because I’m not a hip-hop artist. So I just made my own. Nobody can say nothing about it.”
“Sing-rappers,” is how people have tagged Fetty and his esteemed contemporaries Ty Dolla $ign (who teamed up with Fetty for his richly wobbly “When I See Ya”), Future, DeJ Loaf, iLoveMakonnen, Young Thug, and the pioneering Drake himself. It seems like each passing year means more and more notable artists in hip-hop are blurring genre lines by singing their verses, and Fetty’s sound may be the blurriest of all, since he’s outright dodging the question of which genre he belongs to altogether. “Ignorant R&B,” sure, but “Trap Queen” and “679” have non-sung rapping on them as well. What makes Fetty special is he appears content just to be here; he actually teared up when he won the truly trivial Music Choice award for the video network’s most-played video of early 2015, because he’d never won anything before. Wresting control of rap’s artistic conversation away from others is so far from his interests; he just wants to succeed.
Plus, Fetty adds with a shrug, “I’m not really like, an explaining type of guy.”
Which isn’t 100 percent true, though we do have our share of exchanges that go like this:
I heard that you play the drums?
Broke my hand, I can’t really hold sticks like that anymore.
Was that a permanent injury?
There’s no coming back.
How’d you break it?
“The future of rap?” Cohen asks. “He’s the present of rap, how about that?”
The charismatic but reticent star opens up when talking about his family. “I’ve been to California a lot lately. I like it out there. I flew my mother out there for the BET Awards and she likes it out there. That’s all I needed to hear. My son loves water. He likes the summer and he likes water, so it works out for me.” He constantly drops such dad-of-the-year logic as, “Why would I wear $4,000 outfits on TV but not buy them for my son — know what I’m saying?”
But it’s difficult to get him to talk about his debut album in terms of some kind of grander narrative, and not because he’s deeply invested in cultivating mystery or a persona.
“I just hope no one expects a story from it,” he tells me in July, two months before the record’s release. “There will be no storytelling on this album,” he had promised, and the LP indeed lives up to his assertion that, “It’s like a turn up album, you know what I’m saying? Like really rowdy and just really rude.”
It’s also really long: Fetty Wap is over an hour in its 17-track standard edition and nearly 80 minutes in the 20-track deluxe. It never strays from its own remarkably singular recipe, and the shout-outs to his favorite cognac border on The Number 23-level fetishistic — “17 shots / No. 38” from “679” doubles as a joke about Glock 17s and .38 specials. (A rep for 300 Entertainment mysteriously told me that “the Rémy Martin question is just not something Fetty’s going to discuss”; the beverage company declined to comment for this story.) But there’s more “storytelling” there than its namesake believes, especially if you hear “Trap Queen” as a trilogy with its prequel, the partner-cajoling “Jugg,” and the forlorn hit “Again,” a plea for his trap queen to stay after she tires of the crooked life (“I want you to be mine again, baby / I know my lifestyle is driving you crazy”). Holding it down to the very end, Ariel Reese includes an iTunes link to buy Fetty’s album on her Instagram.
The only big surprise about Fetty Wap, which Fetty claims was culled from “600 or 700” things he wrote, was that the only guests featured were his ZooGang associates Monty (officially a Remy Boy) and M80 (who thus far appears to be more of a satellite/Cappadonna figure). There was no Drake to be found on the album version of the creeping, seductive “My Way” — despite the fact that, as with iLoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday,” Drizzy’s remix was a crucial signal boost for Fetty this past spring, after he’d only been freshly signed to Cohen’s 300 imprint last November.
“We don’t like features,” insists Cohen. “We like the fact that he’s surviving just fine without it. [the label] would like to have much less features than the normal industry proposes. It’s a harder, more arduous task, but it’s simply more rewarding.”
“There wasn’t any pressure [to have features] because it’s not up to the label to decide for me what I want to do on my album,” Fetty explains over the phone in September. “It would have been the 300 album. It wouldn’t have been the Fetty Wap album, you know?”
Other than his left-field presence in general, this is by far the biggest talking point on Fetty Wap from an industry standpoint. Conventional wisdom of major-label rap releases — roping in as many big-name collaborators as budget allows, targeting demographics with token “pop” and “street” songs — has been all but gutted over this past year, with Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples, A$AP Rocky, and Kendrick Lamar all finding success with uncommercial-sounding full-lengths on majors, without any obvious club or radio compromises.
“I’ve made it this far without a feature, I’ll be alright,” says Fetty. “Look at J. Cole, man. His album [2014 Forest Hills Drive] went platinum already. Zero features. J. Cole, album-wise, is actually my idol.”
Considering Fetty’s unprecedented voice and unobstructed rise to stardom, it’s all too tempting to ask Cohen if the Paterson wunderkind — the most commercially successful sing-rapper since Drake and Future — is the future of rap. This makes him scoff again.
“That’s a highfalutin, unnecessary moniker that I wouldn’t even engage with,” retorts the label head. “The future of rap? He’s the present of rap, how about that?”
Awkward covers of “Trap Queen,” ranked from worst to really worst:
5. Taylor Swift’s the classiest of the twerk-appropriating set, mostly having the grace to stay out of the way while her guest Fetty performed the thing himself. Also the “snatch up a necklace” part sounds like he’s saying “snatch a vernacular” here — which is all-too fitting.
4. For all his soddenness on the mic, Ed Sheeran’s acoustic version from The Tonight Show in June manages to append some nice “Wonderwall”-esque chord changes onto a new American classic.
3. Whereas Fall Out Boy struggled to add crunchy-clunky counterpoint beneath Patrick Stump’s awkwardly horned-in harmonies.
2. Jason Derulo’s nervous rendition of the song for BBC Radio 1 was a mysterious combination of oversung and under-projected, the total inverse of how winningly off-the-cuff the original is.
1. And the jazzy version by 10-year old Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp actor George Dalton — culturally inevitable as it may be — is exactly as terrible as you’ve read. There’s only one discernible person of color you can (briefly) spot among the many white kids in the cover’s video, and he A) never looks into the camera once, B) appears to be the cast’s chauffeur, yikes.
“I think [Sheeran’s cover] was very good,” Fetty admits. “I’m honestly surprised. I feel honored that people are actually covering my songs. It’s just a blessing. There’s a million other songs out there and they want to do Fetty Wap.”
Fall Out Boy he describes as, “definitely different. But a good different,” and was only tangentially familiar with the band before the MTV Awards invite.
Fetty’s surprised when I mention in July that Taylor Swift is a fan.
“That’s one of the main female artists I want to do a song with,” he’d said. Later, after he did end up performing with Swift, his enthusiasm was more tempered: “It was cool, I enjoyed it. I’m glad I got the opportunity to perform with her.” (He didn’t get to talk to her much, make of that what you will.)
The second-most well-known Remy Boy, Monty, talks about meeting celebrities like Taylor Swift and Kanye from a far more fannish perspective than Fetty: “Taylor Swift is a beautiful person, she’s so cool. And I mean it, we thank her for the opportunity letting us out there on stage with her to do ‘Trap Queen’ in front of 60,000 people,” he gushes. “The feeling was just amazing bro. You can’t even describe it.”
“I don’t really like to bother people,” Fetty says, which is apparently why it took him so long to meet Drake, even after the “My Way” remix staved off his initial fluke status. But at Friedman’s he proudly tells me that he’s wearing shoes that Kanye had given him. His mom’s more into celebrity culture than he is, so when he brought her to the BET awards, “She saw Ne-Yo, and I didn’t even know she liked Ne-Yo,” he recalls. “And she said to him like, ‘I have your albums!’ And I’m like ‘What, mom? You ain’t even bought my mixtape!’”
Likewise, his mom found out he had a hit song on the radio before he did. “Everybody heard it before me,” he tells me.
Fetty’s nonplussed attitude about fame sometimes extends to his interest in what else is popular.
“I don’t watch videos,” he says coolly.
“Why not?” I ask.
“Because I don’t like making them. They take too long. I don’t know, bro, I’m mad weird, man. Everybody loves the video stuff. I don’t like videos. Fake cars, fake money, all of it’s fake. I don’t like being fake. If I’m going to do a video, I’m gonna use my real car.”
He pauses and adds: “[Houston rapper] Kirko Bangz, I did a video with him, but I only had to do a hook so it was real quick. I was so happy. Best video of my whole life.”
The “Trap Queen” video is full of enthusiasm nevertheless, alternating between shots of Fetty partying and Fetty seated in front of several phones and even more piles of dough. A woman acts out the various lyrics with them: getting high with his baby, counting money, and delivering a literal pie from the oven during the song’s widely misunderstood line about what Fetty and his baby are actually cooking.
“Apple, my favorite,” he says, grinning. “I don’t know who made the pie, but I know it was baked for real. It was hot. I ate it.”
“Where I’m from,” Monty tells me, “for something like this to happen is almost impossible.
There’s something what-me-worry about Fetty’s reaction to fame catching him by surprise. Gracious and family-oriented as Fetty reportedly is, something about “humble” just shortchanges his ambition and self-belief. He is in genuine awe of himself, but — compared to the hubris of rap’s Mount Rushmore circa 2015 (Kanye, Drake, Future, Nicki) — he’s too God-fearing to f**k with his luck. The charmingly unstructured “RGF Island” lays out the mortal limitations of only living once: “My niggas stack their money just to spend it / Cause when you die you cannot take it with you.”
Life is never a certainty, and on Saturday, September 26, the day after his album is finally released, Fetty’s hospitalized for a Suzuki motorcycle accident attempting to pass a car. Photos posted to Instagram showed him in a splint, having broken his leg in three places. He later posted a video expressing support to fans, with the caption “They told me don’t make a video but I’m still breathing so I gotta let ya no [sic] I’ll be back.”
Having since dropped a mixtape with French Montana and teased even more music to be released soon, Fetty’s only comment post-accident for SPIN is via email: “I got new music coming soon, don’t want to give away any surprises, but I got some great features.”
On a Thursday at the end of August, I’m in the lounge at the Manhattan club Pacha for Funkmaster Flex’s 48th birthday bash, sitting patiently between silver ice buckets, sparkling thermoses of Grey Goose, and vases of cranberry juice, waiting for Fetty, the headliner, to roll in. There are glass shower stalls, tiled and all, for so-inclined dancers to occupy. But tonight it’s just me and SPIN’s photographer and some of the RGF crew slumped on couches, plus a stowaway in a pink dress who spends a long time in one entourage member’s lap, a short time in two others, and is eventually escorted out by security.
At 2:30 a.m., the area fills up instantaneously as Fetty arrives for a pre-show meet-and-greet, along with dozens of people taking photos either of him or with him. His right arm is in a red wraparound cast, which never gets explained. Eventually he takes a very small, very crowded stage to loud chants of “FET-TY WAP, FET-TY WAP,” and performs “My Way,” “679,” “Again” and “Trap Queen.” The audience overpowers every “waaaaay-ay-ay,” “they knoooooow us,” and “driiiiiiiiiiiving you crazy.” The crowd also dutifully helps recite the entire first verse of “Trap Queen” a cappella, with Fetty and Monty pogoing in unison as the beat bursts back in for the chorus. The crowd wasn’t exactly Cheap Trick’s at Budokan: just a bunch of tipsy, clued-in horndogs sensing a kindred spirit with big, singable hits. Regular people, just like the ones onstage. It’s a great, bleary-eyed time. No one can control us.
“They’re just so proud,” Monty tells me, almost emotionally dumbfounded, about his success in the eyes of family and friends back in Paterson. “Where I’m from, for something like this to happen is almost impossible. It’s impossible for something like this to happen. I don’t even know how to say it… they just be so proud.”
Fetty is unconcerned with what happens from here, including what he’s referred to as “one-hit-wonder talk.” You can imagine him wanting to see the look on his high-school teachers’ faces when he told Rolling Stone, “I did what most people said I wouldn’t do.” His celebrity has been extraordinary for the Paterson community — last week, he donated and handed out 200 Thanksgiving turkeys to his home city. But fleeting fame is ancillary for a guy who just wants to make music and support his family.
“I’m not scared of anything,” he tells me in Friedman’s. “Like, God, that’s it. I’m scared of God and my mom.”