In under two years, Fetty Wap has gone from peddling CDs outside of a New Jersey pizzeria to commandeering the pop charts. It’s the kind of blissful, breezy ascendance to fame that seems like a fairy tale. His childhood was starkly different: Raised in hard-knock Paterson, the rapper lost an eye as an infant to congenital glaucoma and wore a prosthetic that drew taunts from other kids. “When I was little, I used to get punked,” says the 24-year-old, while in Dallas shooting the video for “My Way,” his second Billboard Hot 100 top 10. Eventually he began defending himself, once throwing a desk at a tormentor. “Ever since then, I’d just be fighting whenever somebody talked about my eye — I used to fight a lot.”
Pop music, on the other hand, is welcoming him with open arms: He’s easily 2015’s biggest breakout star. Following his debut hit, “Trap Queen,” he landed three more on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs, becoming the first act to send his first four entries into the chart’s top 10 simultaneously. His self-titled debut album arrives Sept. 25, but he’s already had four top 40 hits on the Hot 100: “679” (No. 7 peak), “Trap Queen” (2), “My Way” (7) and “Again” (33). He’s on a North American tour with Chris Brown and recently modeled for his so-called “big bro” Kanye West’s Yeezy collection with Adidas Originals (“Anything he wants, I’ll do,” Fetty says of West.)
Even in an age of viral, overnight sensations, Fetty Wap stands apart. He has an endearing smile, blond dread extensions, a tattooed forehead and a missing left eye — he stopped wearing the prosthesis because he “didn’t want to look like anybody else,” he says. While he speaks in a stoner’s mumble, he sings in a throaty, desperate caterwaul, punctuated by a staccato “aye” or elongated “yeaaah.” “Trap Queen” and “My Way” are surprisingly heartfelt, pining love songs (see sidebar below) wrapped in references to selling dope and “head shots if you think you could take my bitch.” “He has an amazing sense of melody,” says Todd Moscowitz, Fetty’s co-manager and the co-founder (with Lyor Cohen and Kevin Liles) of 300 Entertainment, the label Fetty is signed to. “He’s also incredibly vulnerable, and that’s refreshing in a genre that has a lot of bravado.”
Born Willie Maxwell, Fetty was raised by a truck-driver father and secretary mother in a neighborhood where “people get shot, do drugs, sell drugs and fight every day,” he says. In 10th grade, he dropped out of Eastside High School, the troubled institute immortalized in 1989 film Lean on Me, and began selling drugs around 12th Avenue and East 22nd Street, a notoriously rugged area. “I felt like I’d rather get money than an education,” he says. “When I did have people to listen to, I didn’t listen to them anyway. All we knew was drug-dealing, getting ran down by the police and ‘How much we gonna smoke today?’ ”
Fetty didn’t see music as a viable career until 2013, when he was coaxed into rapping after a friend heard him freestyle. A fan of Young Jeezy and other Southern MCs, he stitched together his stage name from a slang term for money (fetty) and an homage to Gucci Mane (who is also called Guwop) and began selling CDs and DVDs at basketball courts and Westfield Garden State Plaza mall in nearby Paramus. By Fetty’s count, he printed 100 copies, then 1,000, then 10,000, with his Remy Boyz crew helping peddle them. “Digital gives you an opportunity, but it also gives you an opportunity to get blown over — what’s an unknown artist to a million other artists out there?” he says, explaining the retrograde hand-to-hand approach. “You know who this is coming from. This is my music, and I put my heart into it.”
By 2014, “Trap Queen” was simmering in New Jersey, and pricked the ears of scouts from 300. He inked a deal in November, and the label introduced the song to New York radio, where it took off immediately. “It was the fastest-reacting record I can remember seeing in a very long time — maybe ever,” says Moscowitz. The track hit No. 2 on the Hot 100 in May — a remarkable feat for an anthem that describes Fetty’s ride-or-die girlfriend helping him cook up crack cocaine.
“If everybody was to catch on to the [references in the] song, it wouldn’t have been that big,” admits Fetty. “At the end of the day, it’s my personal love story. Can’t nobody tell me how to be in love.” (He remains friendly with the woman who inspired “Trap Queen,” but is currently single, and has a 4-year-old son and an infant daughter.)
“Trap Queen” led listeners to his SoundCloud page, where more songs were waiting: Without promotion or videos, “Again,” “679” and “My Way” amassed millions of hits and picked up surprise radio play. Rap is ruled by primogeniture — new rappers are usually knighted by established ones — but Fetty was blowing up on his own. “I think that helped me,” he says. “Nobody can say, ‘If it wasn’t for such-and-such, Fetty Wap wouldn’t have done it.’ I don’t need nobody else.”
Befitting his DIY ethos and insular loyalty, Fetty has no guest vocals or production from artists outside his camp — a rarity for a major-label rap set. “Having people on the album, that’s not going to do nothing for me,” he says. “That’s going to help them. Instead, I’ll help the people that been with me.”
The lack of big-name guests could hurt his record’s commercial prospects, but he doesn’t seem concerned. “I don’t give a goddamn if the album don’t make it nowhere,” he says. “I don’t care if I don’t sell 100 copies if all my family bought it. None of that extra shit matter to me, bro, as long as I get a chance to live a dream a lot of people didn’t.”
Fetty’s making the most of that chance: He recently played The Tonight Show for the second time; Taylor Swift brought him onstage during an August tour stop to perform “Trap Queen”; and best of all, says Fetty, his mother was able to retire a few weeks ago. There are no more taunts from cruel classmates and, most assuredly, no more desks thrown in response. “I don’t be fighting no more,” he says. “Now people call the cops and try to sue me.”
Listen to Fetty Wap and other artists featured in this week’s issue of Billboard:
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of Billboard.