Photos by Seher
Fetty Wap pulls up in a white Benz and hops out of the car singing “Happy Birthday.” He’s serenading his manager, who stands there smirking at him: Fetty must do things like this a lot. His arms are extended and dramatic while he sings the high notes in his now-signature wailing cadence, swaying like he’s an R&B act from the New Jack Swing Era. When he’s done, he runs over to shake my hand, and proceeds to give his friend Montana Buckz a bear hug like they haven’t seen each other in years. Fetty then races back to the trunk of his car, which is doubling for the day as his dressing room. He’s tall and lean, but his stature is solid: He could defend you in a dark alley. He’s strikingly handsome, but it’s the kind of handsome that grows on you the more you speak to him. Also, he’s missing an eye.
With the smash hit success of his song “Trap Queen” and a string of follow up features and loosies that quietly suggests he’s got plenty more hits in him, Fetty Wap has captured the country’s imagination. And he’s done so from an unlikely vantage point, as a 24-year-old rookie rapper from the pop culture backwater of Paterson, New Jersey, our shared hometown.
To anyone familiar with New Jersey, the city of Paterson is like the diamond in the rough of the Northeast, with a deep culture and history buried under layers of terrible things. Its 8.7 square miles are full of violence, drugs, and culture—in that order. There isn’t much fame in the way of P-Town, save for the entry-level notoriety of East Side High School from the 1989 film Lean On Me. But it’s where Fetty Wap is from, and it’s where we’re meeting, at a converted factory-turned-art space. It’s possibly the hottest day in May, and the outdoors are like Hell (in more ways than one). The un-air conditioned indoors feel like a sauna. Montana (or “Monty” for short) is there to support his boy in the heat, although he could use some support, too: He runs to the store at one point for water, worrying the heat’s making him dehydrated.
Various people from the neighborhood stop by to say hey wassup hello while Fetty’s getting dressed, and even when he is shirtless and mid-pants change, he still talks to them. While he’s changing, we attempt to grab a few solo photos of Montana, an artist in his own right and possibly the only person who will be featured as a guest on Fetty Wap’s debut album this fall.
He, like Fetty, represents Remy Boyz 1738, a crew named after the most expensive liquor Fetty thought he’d ever afford to sip, Remy Martin 1738 Accord Royale cognac (Fetty later smirks thinking back on that). Montana pushed Fetty to take the leap as an artist. “I’ve been rockin’ with Wap for like ten years. He’s my brother for real,” Montana tells me. “We’ve been through a lot before this. He literally came from nothing and he grinded into something.” The leader of the Remy Boyz re-emerges, dipped in Robin’s jeans and a maroon top, ready for the camera.
Fetty, born Willie Maxwell, has one of those success stories rappers dream about. “Trap Queen” was a sneak attack, with a gradual build from quiet Soundcloud drop to smash radio hit. “Basically ‘Trap Queen’ started the whole Fetty Wap sound and flow,” he says. “Like now it’s just building. I say now I found myself, and I keep finding new things to add to it.” He set the pot to the stove last summer with the song’s release. It was simmering by the fall and started boiling by the winter, when Fetty aligned himself with Kevin Liles’ and Lyor Cohen’s 300 Entertainment. By spring 2015 it was full rock ready for mass distribution. The single went gold on April 20 and was certified platinum less than a month later, in May. It climbed to number two on the Billboard Hot 100, and it currently sits at number three on the chart.
As he got into music by freestyling, Fetty simultaneously developed a sing-rap style and applied it at the first opportunity. “I didn’t want to be like a Trey Songz or Chris Brown; I didn’t want to have to actually sing-sing,” he admits. “I wanted to sing my words with the melody so people could sing along to it. But I felt my own formula when I did it.” And it worked. The track reached the ears of Kanye West, who gave Fetty his first enormous cosign, inviting him to share the stage for his Roc City Classic Concert back in February. Then came Drake’s remix to Fetty’s follow-up street track “My Way,” along with a performance with Fall Out Boy at this year’s MTV Movie Awards. Fetty Wap’s voice is suddenly everywhere.
Yet Fetty has been hard for the outside world to parse, with interviews that boil down to fairly terse exchanges about his missing eye and awkward explainers of the slang in “Trap Queen.” The single may be an homage to a ride or die chick helping Fetty cook pies—a euphemism for a kilo of cocaine—but hanging out with Fetty Wap the side that comes across is more dad than dealer. At one point he interrupts talking about his career to proudly tell me about a Spiderman foam jungle gym he built for his son. A lot of misconceptions about this burgeoning young star get dispelled the moment you meet him.
When he smiles it’s with his entire face, and you really can’t help but smile too. His prosthetic eye seems to wink on cue when his teeth show. It’s uncanny how naturally he knows the angles of his face when taking photos. Maybe it’s from hiding his missing eye at times, or maybe he’s just overtly aware of his awesome bone structure. He jumps and grabs the links of rusty stairs on a half extended fire escape, twisting his lanky frame in mid-air and grinning. He lets go and drops to the ground in almost a perfect b-boy stance.
After a few shots, he pauses. “I need my bandana,” he says. “Feels weird to be without it.” He runs back to his wardrobe mobile, pulls out his Haitian flag bandana, and ties it around his head, which was recently crowned with dreadlocks. They’re not his, per se. “But I bought ‘em!” he says with a laugh. They’re real hair from a woman who Fetty researched before agreeing to intertwine his hair with hers. “It just so happened at the time I wanted to get dread extensions and [the hair seller] was like, ‘I got dreads from this lady, she a really good person and speaks positive energy. She helps so many people in the community and everything.’ And now I got ‘em.” It’s as though the positivity was contagious.
“[Paterson] made me understand life could be a lot harder than what it is for me right now, and I went through that before I got to where I’m at now, and I love it. Wouldn’t change anything about it,” he says. “I’m not saying the bad things are good, but if only bad things are what you know then what is good?” Anyone native to the area can immediately pin Fetty’s swagger to Paterson, though it’s hard to readily define to outsiders—perhaps an amalgam of New York City edge with New Jersey multicultural inner city sensibility. Something like that.
As a child, Fetty lost his one eye to congenital glaucoma. The doctor managed to save the other. “When I was younger it used to bother me a lot,” he admits. “Not bother physically, but when people would say how I looked, I fought a lot. I used to fight a whole lot. Now it doesn’t bother me at all.” Having children put it all into perspective. His son was born four years ago, his daughter earlier this year. “When my son was born that’s where everything really changed for me as far as the whole glaucoma thing because I was more so worried about if he was going to have the same problem,” Fetty says.
“When he was born, he was able to see out of both of his eyes,” he continues. “It was like I got my vision back.” That moment put him into hustle mode, as his concerns shifted from his own life to his son’s.
“Before he came here it was just all about me, I didn’t care about nothing really,” Fetty explains, stroking the small goatee on his chin. Every time he mentions his son he smiles, but when his discusses “the old him” his face is straight. “I didn’t have nothing to live for so to speak, because I lived my life however I wanted to live it,” he says matter-of-factly. “If that was the last day, then that was the last day. When he was born, it really took me two weeks like, ‘You have a son, what are you doing?’ Just switch it up a little, and it got me focused in my life.” Music was the meal ticket. “This was the only way out. Nobody was trying to get no job; I wasn’t going back to school. I didn’t even graduate high school. I was kinda mean, and when this happened, it was like this is what I’m good at.”
As we’re standing inside of the sweltering building, a young man emerges, heading to a haircutting space upstairs. “Yo Fetty, can you come up and stop by?” he asks. Fetty protectively strokes a lock of his hair like the kid is holding a razor, but still maintains a smile. “Fo’ sho,” Fetty replies. “Yeah, just to take a picture and I got some music to give you,” the kid adds. Fetty nods politely and returns to his thought.
“With the whole music thing, it was like, ‘All, right this is gonna be how [my son] go to school.’ He’s gonna be like, ‘my daddy from here, but he don’t live there no more. My daddy took me to his old neighborhood. They crazy, but I don’t live there.’” With the money he’s made so far, Fetty took care of his own mother, both of his children, and their mothers. First item on the list was moving his kids out of Paterson, even though he still lives there. He plans to buy himself a home in Jersey and another place in either Miami or Atlanta eventually.
“That’s something that makes me happy, knowing they ain’t gonna grow up there,” he says of his kids and Paterson. “I don’t think no father—no matter how much you love your hood or how much you love your block—no father wants to see their kid grow up in the same way they had to. Especially if they got the way to prevent it, then I don’t think nobody would go do that.” When I mention that not too many people see it the way he does, he laughs and replies, “Maybe they’ve gotta lose an eye.”
So while Fetty Wap is known to the world as the artist who crafts tracks about cooking coke, he’s also the father who monitors which video games his child can play (sometimes Call of Duty but never Grand Theft Auto). It’s a dichotomy he hasn’t elaborated much on in his music, but he’ll get there. As he readies his first album, the pressure to follow up “Trap Queen” doesn’t really faze him. He’s still focused on making music with his original engineer—whom he would like to buy a house with a studio where he can record and crash—and a minimal roster of helpers. “It’s like you selling yourself short if you have to put X, Y, and Z on your album for it to sell,” he says. “If it comes, it comes, but I just want people to listen to my music. That’s why we got the Soundcloud, it always keep updating because I want y’all to know who I am.”
And who, exactly, is Fetty Wap? That remains to be seen. But this kid from a city called Paterson whose heartbeat found basslines doesn't seem too concerned, because he'll just keep doing what he's done to get to this moment. “I was the one person everyone said ‘if he could do it, I could do it’ and made me not want to stop,” Fetty says with a smile. “It’s what I love to do. I love to be in the studio, I love to see them people’s faces. When that song go on, they just go crazy. It makes me happy; it makes my family happy. It makes my son wake up and know he’s gonna eat. This is my life now.”
Kathy Iandoli loves Fetty Wap and Paterson. Follow her on Twitter.
Seher is a photographer based in New York. Follow her on Instagram.