Happy Zoo Year: How Fetty Wap Keeps Us Hooked
Even with chart successes and co-signs, there was always a popular narrative to downplay Fetty Wap’s almost unprecedented rise - until it could no longer be denied.
Photo by Andrew Maso
When New Jersey rapper Fetty Wap appeared on the national horizon about a year ago, it was easy to underestimate him. Initially, his song “Trap Queen” seemed to be in competition with O.T. Genasis’s “Coco” as rap’s most instant and fleeting novelty hit of late 2014: both proudly light-hearted bubblegum versions of the bleak dope boy anthems that have dominated a corner of mainstream hip-hop for the past decade. But where “Coco” seemed to pop and fizzle in the space of a month, “Trap Queen” just kept growing and growing and growing.
“Trap Queen” began its life, as many rap hits do these days, on Soundcloud, first uploaded in March 2014. The song’s low budget video debuted on YouTube that August, and in November the rapper signed with 300 Entertainment, the Atlantic-distributed indie label known for Atlanta trap stars Migos and Young Thug. Migos and Young Thug are very popular by many metrics, but they are not what’s known as “crossover” acts—they get heavy play on hip hop radio, but pop stations don’t touch them, and they’ve yet to graze the top ten of the Hot 100. It’s hard for any rapper not signed to Young Money to notch a top ten pop hit these days.
Fetty Wap entered the top ten within three months of signing to 300. And then he stayed there and made it his home. “Trap Queen” stayed in the top ten for 25 weeks, not too far behind the 32-week record set by LeAnn Rimes in 1998. Along the way, the follow-up single “My Way” also entered the top ten, and it was soon joined by a third Fetty Wap smash, “679.” His overall top ten streak is at 38 weeks and counting, with “679” holding strong as of this writing. At one point, Fetty Wap’s first three charting singles were all in the Hot 100’s top 11 at the same time, a feat only managed once before in Billboard history, by the Beatles in 1964. Fettymania had arrived.
As he entered the spotlight, a portrait of Fetty Wap as one of rap’s most disarmingly loveable new stars emerged. In every interview, he radiated gratitude and disbelief about his overnight rise to fame. The rapper, who is blind in one eye, revealed that glaucoma took his vision in that eye as an infant, and that he was lucky to have retained sight in the other. He posted on Instagram about having made enough money to pay back “anybody who ever helped me.” The day after his album was released in September, he broke his leg in a motorcycle accident—which is really his fault, since a guy with limited depth perception probably shouldn’t be driving a motorcycle at all, but you still felt for the guy that he had to spend part of what should’ve been a celebratory weekend in the hospital. Waka Flocka Flame had taken on a similar image, as the trap rapper with a heart of gold, a few years earlier, but Fetty Wap seemed a little more vulnerable as a person, and a little more romantic in songs like “Trap Queen” and “Again.”
Along the way to chart domination and, most recently, two Grammy nominations for "Trap Queen," Fetty Wap made some famous friends. In February, Kanye West invited Fetty to perform at one of his events in New York, and said “Trap Queen” was “my favorite song right now.” In April, Fall Out Boy brought out Fetty Wap to perform with them at the MTV Movie Awards. In May, Drake appeared on a remix of “My Way.” And in August, Fetty Wap joined the parade of stars who popped up to perform one of their hits with Taylor Swift on her 1989 Tour.
But all along the way, there was always a popular narrative to downplay Fetty Wap’s almost unprecedented rise. First he was a one hit wonder. Then, he had two hits but was one of the many artists who benefited from Drake generously adding a verse to one of their songs. Then, Fetty Wap’s self-titled debut album finally arrived in September, but the 75,000 units it sold in the first week seemed maybe a little low for an album that already had a historically successful trio of hit singles. In fact, Fetty Wap only squeaked out a number one on the Billboard 200 over Don Henley, who sold more in “pure album sales,” because Billboard now factors “album equivalent units,” based on downloads and streams of individual songs, into the album chart.
Fetty Wap’s album is nobody’s idea of a masterpiece: At 17 songs—20 on the deluxe edition—it’s a little more of his now-familiar formula than anyone really needs in one sitting. He consistently writes great hooks, but as a rapper he can be clumsy and elementary, with a Mike Jones-like tendency to fill out verses by repeating the same bar two or three times in a row. And after spending the year running around with Kanye and Taylor, Fetty Wap released an album completely devoid of big name stars—even “My Way” appears on the album without a Drake verse, which is just as well, since it was a terrible verse and radio stations wound up playing the original version more after the Drake buzz died down. Only two guest rappers appear on the album, and one of them, Remy Boyz groupmate Monty, appears on nine tracks, functioning like a kind of on-record hypeman who just can’t shut up about his Robin Jeans.
The fact that much of Fetty Wap’s album was comprised largely of songs he’d already released on Soundcloud and mixtapes, with no big name guests or producers, led many to decry the album as a lazy or rushed effort. And while maybe fans of the previously released material deserved a little more new music to justify an album purchase, 300’s decision to release the album they did was a sound one. Too often these days, “debut” hip-hop albums feel more like the artist’s second or maybe fifth album by the time they arrive, after years of mixtapes and one-off singles. 300 took forever to release an official Migos album this year, and when they did, hits like “Versace” and “Fight Night” were far too old to include, and none of the new songs made remotely as much of an impact. It would have been ridiculous for Fetty Wap to stay in the studio for an extra year collaborating with stars while his early hits faded from memory.
Even more remarkable than the lack of guests on Fetty Wap’s album is the lack of big name producers—literally none of the beatmakers on the album had anything notable besides Fetty Wap songs on their resume. Brian “Peoples” Garcia produced six songs on the album, but since they don’t include “Trap Queen” or “My Way,” it’d be hard to credit him—or anyone but Fetty Wap—as the architect of the Fetty Wap sound. And while the fourth single “Again” only peaked at number 33 on the charts, there are countless songs on the album that sound like they could continue the hit parade. “RGF Island” has already spent ten weeks on the Hot 100 without being released as a single.
And Fetty Wap doesn’t seem to be suffering from any kind of writer’s block. A month after the album was released, he released Coke Zoo, a joint mixtape with French Montana, and this week he released For My Fans, a five-song EP to cap off his big year. “Z O O” from For My Fans and “My Squad” from Coke Zoo sound as much like potential hits as anything he’s done. And over the next year, the true test of Fetty Wap’s talent will come when major labels inevitably begin seeking him out to provide hits for other artists. There’s a wealth of signed rappers who have some degree of fame and even rapping skills but can’t write a chorus to save their lives, and when someone like Fetty Wap shows up with hooks to spare, they quickly become a hitmaker for hire. We didn’t know how good T-Pain or Future was until they started cranking out choruses for the entire industry. 2015 was inarguably the year of Fetty Wap, but 2016 could very easily be the year of “featuring Fetty Wap.”
Al Shipley is gonna treat his whole squad on Twitter.