“Hey, can you give me that bra?”
Backstage at Irving Plaza, several female dancers are in various stages of undress. I hand over a sequined bra that turns out to be much heavier than it looks. A striking brunette gets her long hair curled into loose ringlets while a curvy blonde struts about in daisy dukes that belie the fact that it’s cold as fuck outside. The air in here is heavy with marijuana and the floral notes of hairspray. “Don’t let them see my ass!” one dancer begs. The twenty or so people milling around are mostly oblivious, but someone holds up a jacket while she discreetly shimmies into a spandex bodysuit.
Despite all the bustle, this is actually the calm before the storm. Fetty Wap, the headliner, hasn’t arrived yet. “We have to figure everything out before the madness,” says his manager’s assistant. The madness. It’s a phrase that will be echoed by several people — that manager, the record label — and it’s not some inflated industry platitude.
Fetty Wap’s success is madness.
In 2015, Kendrick Lamar pimped a butterfly, but Fetty Wap was the radio killer. The rapper, born Willie Maxwell II, made history as the first artist to have his first four singles (“Trap Queen,” “679,” “My Way,” and “Again”) on Billboard‘s top ten Hot Rap Songs chart simultaneously. “Trap Queen” notched nominations for Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song at the 58th Annual Grammy Awards, where it faced off against Lamar, Nicki Minaj, Drake, J. Cole, and other formidable hitmakers. The ode to a ride-or-die chick who knows her way around an illicit transaction is played as ubiquitously at 1 Oak as it is in Fetty’s native Paterson, New Jersey, and has become a barrier-breaking cultural tour de force. Ed Sheeran and Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo have covered it. Taylor Swift crooned along to it. Ten-year-old George Dalton, a chubby kid with a James Dean–style coiffure, went viral with his kid-friendly remix.
Beyond the gravitational pull of “Trap Queen,” much of Fetty Wap’s appeal is rooted in his everyman mien. Fetty Wap is a regular ’round-the-way guy who happens to make hits. He’s not bombastic; if anything, he’s the underdog. It’s apparent in his excitement — or lack thereof — for his Grammy nods. “I don’t think I’m gonna win. I don’t get my hopes up for nothing,” he says. He isn’t the least bit offended about being snubbed for Best New Artist, either: “Maybe I wasn’t the best one,” he says. Then he grins. Clearly, he doesn’t believe that — but he won’t say it.
“I don’t care about stuff like that. I aim to make music.”
Fetty Wap is a regular ’round-the-way guy who happens to make hits. He’s not bombastic; if anything, he’s the underdog.
Regarding the potential for “Trap Queen,” Fetty Wap reveals that the song’s success didn’t surprise him. “Yeah, we knew,” he says of its popularity. “We knew for two years.” The 24-year-old has finally arrived at the venue. After his entourage scatters, he slumps his six-foot frame onto a leather sofa. He’s wearing a ripped denim jacket and wheat-colored Timbs, and his hair is in long, honey-brown twists that hang to his collarbone. “I’m OK. A little tired,” he says. He’s soft-spoken — I have to lean in to hear him — and he faces ahead so that his much talked-about left eye, which he lost to glaucoma, is out of my line of vision. In the midst of a multi-city tour, his fatigue is understandable. “I’m used to this now. I might just smoke a blunt,” he says, whereupon his manager returns with one in hand.
Fetty Wap never wanted to perform — he wanted to trap. “I never envisioned myself being a singer. I never envisioned Fetty Wap, you know what I’m saying? My goal was to be like Gucci Mane, the trap god.”
He dealt marijuana as a teenager outside his Eastside High School in Paterson. “I wasn’t popular at all. Not a good student. Nobody really knew me. They only knew me for [selling drugs].”
Fetty dropped out after his sophomore year, at the age of sixteen. He moved out of his parents’ home and sustained a comfortable living — for a while — by dealing. After multiple arrests for possession, and with the financial pressures of new parenthood mounting, he hit on hard times. “I had to get my son some diapers and I had to borrow money from my aunt,” he says. “My aunt wasn’t really having it, so I had to go out and do what I had to do. Everyone was getting ran down like crazy. You couldn’t really bust a move. That’s when I really looked at what I was doing.” He leveraged his street salesmanship to hawk his own Remy Boyz line of T-shirts. “We were doing $20 shirts. It was like we were on the block, but legally.” Around this time, Fetty and day-one pal Monty began recording music seriously. “People knew I was making music. [When] people started to really like the music, then it became my job.”
“I’m like, ‘Hey, what’s up? Hello…’ “
It’s 10:53 p.m., and Fetty Wap is onstage at Irving Plaza performing “Trap Queen.” Nearly three years after he recorded the sleeper hit, it still incites strong reactions from the packed room. The mostly teenage crowd sways. They know nothing about Fetty’s definition of “trap” — the location of a drug deal — but they know a pop smash. White boys mimic whipping movements with their arms while couples nuzzle and make out. It’s an anthem for everyone. “Thank you for coming out,” Fetty says, soaking in the good vibes and teen spirit. “I hate being cold. So I appreciate y’all coming out in the motherfucking cold.”
Fetty’s first recorded effort was a freestyle over Chief Keef and Young Jeezy’s 2012 track “Understand Me.” A few songs later, Fetty was in the booth in Clifton, New Jersey, at So Amazin’ Studios,
recording “Trap Queen.” The song was released in March 2013; Fetty and his Remy Boyz adopted a grassroots approach, blasting their output online and stumping at area club gigs as “Trap Queen” gathered steam. “I’ve performed at every strip club in New York,” Fetty reflects today. “Every small club in New York. I did every club in New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania. A lot of places.”
Regional buzz became YouTube views (“Trap Queen” has over 380 million to date) and reached execs at 300 Entertainment. Selim Bouab, the a&r man who signed Fetty, remembers seeing potential from the outset. “He had great music. When he played me his records, I realized this isn’t [just] about ‘Trap Queen.’ This is about a great artist.” Fetty inked a deal with the label in late 2014.
The cosign didn’t immediately translate into acceptance; many brushed him off as gimmicky. Gee Spin, program director of New York’s Power 105, remembers hearing “Trap Queen” for the first time in early 2015: “I’m listening to DJ Self’s Midnight Mix and he’s playing ‘Trap Queen.’ I called up the hotline like, ‘What is this shit? What the fuck is this?’ Not a fan.” The singsong patter of “Trap Queen” was both its Achilles’ heel and its secret weapon — it was ridiculously, irresistibly catchy, bound to snag even haters eventually. “The more I heard it, I was like, ‘This shit is kinda melodic.’ From that time to maybe a month later, it was in rotation,” says Gee. “It reacted with the audience immediately.”
It’s easy to rest on one’s laurels after such a monster hit, but Fetty has kept his momentum going with “679,” “My Way,” and “Again.” In September, the rapper’s album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, selling 129,000 equivalent album units in its first week. The next month, he performed at Power 105’s annual Powerhouse at the Barclays Center: Due to a recent motorcycle accident, he delivered his set from a throne, a coronation of his own making.
And now, with nods from the industry and momentum ever building following “Trap Queen” ‘s big year, Fetty is content to stay in his decibel-spiking kingdom. Jersey is on hip-hop’s radar thanks to Fetty Wap, and he’s proud to rep it, especially now that the world beyond the Tri-State is clamoring for more than the single. “A lot of people relate to him. He’s just this kid from Jersey with one eye that’s got a humble attitude, and that’s winning,” says Gee. “He’s a tough kid not to like.”