When Fivio Foreign picks up my FaceTime call, he's excited to give me a peek at his relatively new home. With its high windows and chandeliers, it’s a far cry from the cramped East Flatbush buildings he grew up in, and the various couches he surfed when he was homeless.
Life is different for Fivio now. Seven months ago, he was just starting to bubble up from under the surface of New York's promising Brooklyn drill scene when he caught the world's attention with his riotous video for "Big Drip," a celebration of summer filled with water guns and twerking in ice cream trucks—all in front of the Shake Shack in DUMBO. It was a recipe for going viral, which shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with the rapper’s knack for fitting the word "Viral!" in his everyday language. With his breakthrough single behind him and Brooklyn's emerging class of MCs growing in stature daily, Fivio mostly just seems content to sit back and savor the moment.
"I'm not even thinking that far ahead—and I should be—but I'm just happy to be here," he tells me. "My only thought is like, This is fun. I don't know if it's gon' last for too long, so let me just go viral."
Growing up, Fivio filled his days with basketball and video games, interests he eventually outgrew. "We grew up and started to learn about gangs," he says. "I'm a product of my environment." Hip-hop was always a part of his world, and growing up in East Flatbush offered a glimpse into Brooklyn's rap revival of recent years. The pugnacious Rowdy Rebel lived on the same floor as Fivio, and neighborhood sensations like Rowdy and Bobby Shmurda made an impact on the impressionable teen.
"It made everybody realize what everything was about," he says. "Niggas could really make it if you really worked hard."
That same year, he began appearing on features with his 800 Foreign Side crew, a group of longtime friends looking to find their lane in rap. Videos from his earlier days, like "Like Some Stars" only have 50,000 views, a fraction of what the rapper is used to now, but serve as preludes to his signature style. Fivio is at his best teetering between being the life of the party while chronicling his struggles.
In 2018, his mother died from complications of a stroke. Fivio became homeless, but the setbacks only drove him to take his music more seriously. After appearing on 2018's "Blixky Inna Box" with Brooklyn rappers Jay Dee and Dee Sav, he signed a publishing deal with Ma$e.
As he zeroed in on his solo endeavors, he stumbled on a million-dollar mistake: the overblown ad libs on "Big Drip," which Fivio attributes to not being mixed properly. But instead of detracting from the song’s appeal, they made the song a viral sensation. With the help of an attention-grabbing video, his shouts of "Aye! Aye! Aye!" became something of a meme, and the song’s instant success landed him a multi-million dollar deal with Columbia.
If his new 8-track EP, 800 B.C., is any indication, going viral is still high on his list of priorities. Out today, the mixtape is an unwavering display of what the 24-year-old rapper has to offer: high-energy, downright rude tracks that capture the best parts of Brooklyn drill.
Three years ago, my colleague Alphonse Pierre predicted that Brooklyn drill was about to take over. With “the right approach and the right luck,” he wrote, “the artists in this new movement have a chance to be more than a niche; they could have the whole country belting ‘Gltttt.’" Since then, Pop Smoke's "BOW!" and Fivio's "Aye! Aye! Aye!" have ricocheted far beyond regional success, proving that New York drill, far from merely being a satellite movement of the Chicago scene, can stand on its own merits.
"This drill shit fake been out," Fivio says. "Bobby and Rowdy [Rebel] really bought that whole drill shit to life and to New York. As far as the new wave and how it's mainstream now, I want to say people like me and Pop Smoke—RIP Pop Smoke—really brought shit to where it's mainstream now.”
The 2010s might have been the decade Black protest music became mainstream, but it also ushered in a new iteration of gangsta rap. Similar to N.W.A's influence in Los Angeles, Chicago's drill scene was helmed by artists like Chief Keef, G Herbo, and Fredo Santana who relentlessly documented their neighborhoods—and the world—as they saw it. Heavily interlaced with gang culture, drill music was written in a language that only the streets understood. It wasn't meant to be consumed by all, but its authenticity resonated with London's drill scene overseas, making it possible for AXL, the London-based "Big Drip" producer, to be the go-to producer for the Brooklyn movement.
Drill music's ability to transcend regions and decades is a testament to the systems designed to fail Black people no matter where they live. Pop culture's obsession with romanticizing the gruesome details of street life provides an insatiable appetite for the music, whether it's drill or trap.
"The streets go through stages," he says. "Sometimes, the streets sound like Future. But right now, the music that's on the streets is that wave I'm from. That's the sound."
For the last six years, the raucous sound of New York rap has remained constant, even if its players have not. There seems to be a dark cloud following anyone who places a bid as the King of New York. In 2014, Bobby Shmurda and Rowdy Rebel got people riled up with "Hot Nigga" and "Computers"—only to be arrested on felony charges related to GS9 affiliated shootings that December. 6ix9ine's success with 2017's "Gummo" was followed by a legal circus involving charges of armed robbery and attempted murder (Last December, 6ix9ine was sentenced to two years in prison). A year later, Harlem's Sheck Wes had the world screaming "BITCH!" with his anthemic "Mo Bamba," but he’s been relatively quiet since Justine Skye came forward to accuse him of stalking and abuse, allegations he has denied. When Pop Smoke's "Welcome to the Party" spilled out of basketball courts, bodegas, and building windows last May, followed by Fivio's "Big Drip" a month later, we were ready to begin the decade with new heroes. But that energy came to an abrupt halt after Pop Smoke was fatally shot in Los Angeles earlier this year.
The eerie reality of being a part of New York's drill scene is that it seems to come with having a target on your back. As Fivio put it during an interview with Hot 97 last month, "Sometimes you'll get too much power and they're like, 'Damn. What he gon' do with the power?' If you do the right thing with the power and pretty much stay off the radar you'll be iight."
But how can Fivio stay off the radar and go viral at the same time?
"Viral don't mean I'm outside wilding," he tells me. "I can go viral in the club or in the studio."
In June, Fivio released “Big Drip” as part of a four-track EP called Pain & Love; they’re the same words he has tattooed on his knuckles, and he considers them the only things worth fighting for. If "Big Drip" was primed for the club, the relaxed, menacing production of "2 Cars" was what you listened to on the way home. The dichotomy between Pain & Love's standouts represented the fullness Fivio could possess. "It's Me," the project's closer, traded in the thunderous snares found throughout Pain & Love for Vanessa Carlton-style keys. "2Pac told us to never give up / Where I'm from, be ready to shoot or ready to duck," he raps. It shows that the East Flatbush rapper is capable of being a little vulnerable, even if only for a moment.
800 B.C. sees Fivio experimenting with other skills in his toolbox. The 8-track mixtape doesn't spend time trying to recreate another "Big Drip" moment—and that is by design. The Brooklyn rapper sees each song as an opportunity to learn. "Drive By," the tape’s adrenaline-fueled opener, prepares you for "Wetty"—a love song by Fivio's definition, evoking the energy of Bonnie and Clyde. "Demons & Goblins" materialized from a studio session where Meek Mill asked the rapper for "one of those gangsta shits." And notwithstanding its ominous production, Fivio's decision to sing on "Issa Vibe" is proof that he's aware of the need to switch it up.
"I can't say, 'Damn, I want to sing like Beyoncé," he says. "All I can do is sing like Fivio Foreign and pray to God that's good enough."
His lyrics may be full of demon references, but Fivio says religion plays a big role in his music and his life, largely thanks to his late mother. Although the album is listed on Genius under the title 800 B.C. (Before Corona), Fivio insists, with a bit of a laugh, that it has nothing to do with the virus.
"It's like Before Christ, or before the coming," he says. "My album is named after the Bible, so since the mixtape is before that, it fits."
In an interview with Power 105.1, Fivio announced that his debut album is already "one and done." Surprisingly, he thinks it’ll be his last.
"I have different goals," he says. "I want to sign artists. I want to open up businesses. Me being a rapper takes up too much of my time. I can't really do the things I need to do, but I need the money."
For now, he says he’s just working hard to put himself in a position where he’ll be able to help his successors.
"It's enough time while the doors are open and while the eyes are on New York to help people sneak in the doors," he said.
That door was arguably less heavy when Pop Smoke was there to hold it open with him. In the wake of Pop Smoke's death, he's representing Brooklyn, and New York, on his own—though that seems to be the least of his concerns.
"The pressure ain't on me, the pressure is on [newer rappers],” he says. “I'm going to do what I do: go viral."
Correction: An earlier version of this story mentioned Fivio Foreign's mother died in 2016. She died in 2018.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer at VICE.