Back for the First Time
After a white-hot start and subsequent cooldown, Fetty Wap is determined to reclaim his spot at the top.
Words: Sowmya Krishnamurthy
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.

On a dark, drizzly, unseasonably cold night in Paterson, N.J., Fetty Wap is lighting up what appears to be a deserted parking structure. The rapper is in the midst of a promo photo shoot coordinated by his record label, 300 Entertainment. He strikes poses against shadows of barbed wire while bathed in crimson light, occasionally smiling and shaking his long, auburn dreads. It’s two days before Halloween, yet while the eerie weather may have arrived early, there’s nothing spooky about Fetty’s fit: a khaki trench with orange and black PVC piping by designer Romeo Hunte, with black leather pants. The setup is in preparation for his sophomore album, King Zoo, his first since his self-titled 2015 LP became one of hip-hop’s most successful debuts of this decade. Despite the massive success of that rookie run, Fetty is feeling like a freshman. “I’m still breaking out of my shell,” says the 28-year-old artist.

Back in 2015, Fetty’s breakout was nothing short of a tour de force. Bolstered by the seven-times platinum mega hit “Trap Queen,” he was the slinger of hypnotic hooks and melodic riffs. The New Jersey native was far from a one-hit wonder. He stacked plaques on plaques on plaques. The successive haymakers—“My Way,” “679,” “Again”—helped him make Billboard history as the first artist whose four maiden singles simultaneously graced the top 10 of the Billboard Hot Rap Songs chart. Drake hopped on the remix of “My Way” and Fetty did the same for Fifth Harmony’s platinum “All in My Head (Flex).” He was in high demand. “‘Trap Queen’ was so big I was doing almost three shows a day,” he remembers. “Eighty-minute [concert] here. Flying jets. Boom. Next day do the same thing.”

Yet, the momentum was fleeting. In 2016, Fetty made a few guest appearances on Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood, and headlines about baby mama drama began to overshadow his music, which, in the following year, failed to reach the Billboard pop chart. All the while, business disputes that played out publicly also helped smother Fetty’s flame. The rap crooner has taken the time to reassess his trajectory and map out where he wants to go next. With his forthcoming album, King Zoo, Fetty seeks to sum up his past few years. “I get to tell my story,” he says. “And tell it my way.”

Jimmy Fontaine

Willie Maxwell Jr.’s story began in a blue-collar household here in Paterson, N.J., one of the most densely populated cities in the U.S. (In 2016, it was voted third-worst American city to live in). Along with his brother and two sisters, Fetty grew up with his dad, a truck driver who did long hauls, and mom, a secretary. His parents made ends meet, but there were lean times.

“There weren’t a lot of times we was hungry, but there were a few bad nights that stuck out, that never leave my memory,” he says. His mother wanted to prepare her kids to be self-reliant. More so for him, because as a child, he lost his left eye to congenital glaucoma after an accident. It’s something he’s since played up as part of his rap persona but back then, it caused his mother to worry. “She thought I’d be one of the kids they’d pick on,” he admits. “Turned out I was one of the bad ones!”

In 2008, the scrappy then 17-year-old moved out of the house and dropped out of school to sell drugs. As a new dad, Fetty was going through a pivotal phase in his life. Around the same time, he met local rapper Remy Boy Monty, who inspired him to pick up the mic. Fetty’s first song was a freestyle over Chief Keef and Young Jeezy’s 2012 track “Understand Me.” The next song was a “singing song” he’d rather forget. Yet, third time’s a charm. In late 2013, Fetty headed to So Amazin’ Studios in Clifton, N.J. and conceived the song that would make him a star.

Sonically, “Trap Queen” is a melodic earworm that grabs you from the first beat drop and doesn’t let go. Fetty followed the footsteps of rapper-singer hybrids like T-Pain and Drake, but his streetwise appeal gave him an edge. “I just want to chill, got a sack for us to roll,” he sings on the drug dealer love anthem. “Married to the money, introduced her to my stove/Showed her how to whip it, now she remixed it for low.”

What’s been on Fetty’s mind lately is how his distinct voice has changed in the past few years. He says that his vocals have grown deeper—thanks to age and smoking—and he’s a bit curious about how fans will receive it. “[It’s] getting raspier,” he shares. “I’m really happy with it. It sounds more elevated.” The King Zoo single “Fresh and Clean,” which flips OutKast’s 2000 classic “So Fresh, So Clean,” demonstrates a lower register. His signature tinny intonations and moans are there but there’s more bass. He says that fans have been supportive of his new sound, hearing it for the first time on the loosie “Brand New,” which he released online this past September. “It’s a good reaction for me,” he exposes. “A lot of them were like, ‘We can hear the difference in your voice. It sounds more mature.’”

Jimmy Fontaine

Fetty wants to grow up his subject matter as well. “This is brand-new Fetty,” says his manager, Navarro Gray. “The Fetty that has seen millions of dollars, has traveled the world and grown into a man.” “On A Mission” finds the rapper proclaiming his return, crooning that he’s “what the game’s been missing.” On “Barlito,” he questions the intentions of a special lady—it plays like a spiritual sequel to “Trap Queen.” In September of 2019, the rapper jumped the broom with model Leandra K. Gonzalez. Just two months later, she alluded to the couple splitting up in a comment posted to Instagram. Today, he’s not forthcoming about the relationship, but fans won’t hear about it on King Zoo. “I made the album already,” Fetty says. Will marriage affect his penchant for making love songs? “I don’t know yet.”

Fetty has always had a strong gut feeling when it comes to his career. When “Trap Queen” was released online in March of 2014, the incubation process spanned over a year, but he was dogged in his belief. “Something felt crazy,” he says of when he heard the finished product. “It was like a feeling almost as high as when I was having my son. I’ll never forget that.” After uploading “Trap Queen” to SoundCloud, Fetty remembers the streams starting at 5,000 and increasing incrementally. It would ultimately be rereleased once he inked a record deal with 300 Entertainment at the end of 2014. To date, “Trap Queen” has 171 million streams on SoundCloud and more than 718 million streams on Spotify. The YouTube video has more than 663 million views to date. “It grew from the clubs, the internet and socials to radio,” says Ebro Darden, Apple Music Global Head of Hip Hop and R&B and Hot 97 morning show host. “So, it took some time.”

By 2015, things reached critical mass. “Trap Queen” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 (at No. 86) on Feb. 7 and hit the top 10 the following month. The track generated the most on-demand streams that year, according to Nielsen Music, with 617 million, and notched nominations for Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song at the 2016 Grammy Awards. Fetty Wap dropped in September of 2015, hitting No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and selling 129,000 equivalent album units in its first week. “One of the main things with audiences is them getting used to your voice,” says Power 105.1 producer/radio personality DJ Clue, reflecting on Fetty’s flood-the-market mentality. “It really helped the people get a vibe on [him] as an artist.”

Celebrity has its downsides, however, and Fetty Wap soon became gossip fodder for all the wrong reasons. In 2015, TMZ reported that the rapper was in a paternity fight with an aspiring artist named Masika Kalysha. The next year, he and Kalysha let their relationship grievances play out on VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood in a cringe-worthy narrative that portrayed him as an absentee father and her as an opportunist. Back and forths on social media and gossip blogs ensued. He faced more paternity issues with another cast member, Alexis Skyy, which turned into a feud between the two women. Soon, the rapper’s reputation became more associated with messy dealings with women and having multiple children than music.

Exacerbating matters, in 2017, he fired his assistant Shawna Morgan for allegedly stealing $250,000 from him. She denies the allegations, per TMZ, and countersued for expenses she believes she incurred. “We moved like a family and in every family there are differences,” says Fetty’s manager Gray. “We all are still a family and we didn’t have disputes that couldn’t be rectified internally. However, some choose to take a different route.” Fetty won’t comment on the matter directly, citing ongoing litigation, but says that the incident made him take a step back and to be more cognizant of his business dealings. “I couldn’t just let these people just take all my money,” reveals Fetty, who has invested in real estate. “I want to know exactly where everything is going. You don’t want to get that letter in the mail with a red sticker—the IRS sticker… Nobody will take care of your business like you going to take care of it.”

Jimmy Fontaine

Fetty has also had his own troubles with the law. In November of 2017, he was arrested for allegedly drag racing in Brooklyn after police say his vehicle clocked more than 100 miles per hour. He faced 15 charges—including felony reckless endangerment and driving while intoxicated—but struck a deal, avoiding trial and potential jail time by pleading guilty to reckless endangerment and driving while intoxicated. In June of 2019, TMZ uploaded a video in which an unidentified woman accuses Fetty of assaulting her and dares him to do it again before he swats her phone away. She reportedly filed a police report, leading to the rapper being investigated for battery. Months later, in September, he was arrested on three counts of battery after allegedly assaulting three security guards at The Mirage on the Las Vegas Strip.

Amid these personal, legal and business issues, Fetty’s releases in 2018, including Bruce Wayne and the For My Fans series, didn’t have the same commercial or critical impact of their predecessors. While 2018’s gold song “KeKe” with 6ix9ine and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie made some noise, reaching No. 43 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, Fetty’s features had dried up. Sure, he had more than earned the right to take a hiatus. But it’s easy to be replaced by the next rapper if you’re quiet for too long. The hip-hop landscape has changed dramatically since Fetty’s debut. New rappers are being discovered (and becoming chart-toppers) at a fever pace thanks to streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. The Tri-State area is poppin’ with newbies such as Lil Tecca, Lil Tjay and Pop Smoke taking the reins. And the sing-song style of Fetty Wap is no longer distinct; it’s de facto among most of the ascendants.

Still, Fetty feels that the turmoil he’s undergone in the past few years has only strengthened his music. “Actually, it made everything a lot better,” he says of being more hands-on with his estate. “It opened my mind. Now, I have more things to talk about.” Industry figures believe he can be dominant in music once again. In October, Senior Vice President of A&R and Creative Director at Interscope Records Randall “Sickamore” Medford tweeted, “Predicting Fetty Wap gonna have the biggest comeback of 2020.” DJ Clue agrees, so long as he reinvents himself. “He definitely needs to come with a different direction,” says Clue. “Updated. He has his trademark sayings and ad-libs—he needs to come with newer versions of that... The hard part is gone. People know who he is. Now, he has to come with a hit record. Then it’ll be lit.”

Fetty Wap knows the stakes are high for King Zoo. Not only does he need to find a place in the current rap zeitgeist but moreover, he needs to move beyond his previous hits. Perhaps because of this, he’s taken his time and started over when he feels that it isn’t right. “I just kept elevating,” he adds. He admits that he scrapped the project seven times before coming upon the current tracklist. “Every time was like, I take a break and come back and it would be a new sound... I had to figure out how to sound. What’s next?”

Whatever the future holds, music is part of Fetty's plan. “It’s naturally in me,” he conveys. “No matter what I do, I can’t stop making music.”

Check out more from XXL’s Winter 2019 issue including our Travis Scott cover story, interviews with Moneybagg Yo and Doja Cat and more.

See Photos of Travis Scott's Winter 2019 Cover Story Photo Shoot