America loves Fetty Wap.
The focus this week in music has been on the brooding feud between Drake and Nicki Minaj's boyfriend Meek Mill as the two throw poorly-written diss tracks back and forth. Even though that's the most dramatic thing happening right now, it's certainly not the most interesting. The craziest thing happening in hip-hop right now is Fetty Wap.
Fetty Wap, a New Jersey rapper nicknamed after money, is an unlikely candidate for massive mainstream fame for many reasons, but he made Billboard history this week by becoming the first rapper since Lil Wayne in 2011 to have two singles in the Billboard Hot 100 Top 10. That's an incredible feat for any rapper, much less a 24 year old who hasn't even put out a debut album yet.
What Fetty Wap is doing right now, permeating the American consciousness without the support of a multi-million dollar PR campaign, isn't completely unheard of, but it certainly is rare in today's marketplace.
Fetty Wap is an unlikely superstar
You would not look at Fetty Wap on the street and say, "you could be the next huge superstar in American culture." He is a skinny pizza of a man who, due to a childhood encounter with glaucoma, only has one eye.
Fetty doesn't wear dapper blazers or even fashionably baggy clothing. In the video for "Trap Queen," Fetty Wap wears a white undershirt, a black bandana on his head, and a pair of Jordans. He could be any dude.
Male rappers, of course, do not have to abide by the beauty standards of women in any musical genre, but what's interesting about Fetty Wap is that he doesn't have any the kind of fame and support some other popular rappers have. He wasn't on Degrassi. He's not friends with Rick Ross or dating Nicki Minaj. And he certainly isn't signed to a big label like some of his peers.
Fetty Wap only started making music in 2013. He was 22 years old, and had zero experience in the music industry. "It wasn't far-fetched for me, though, because a lotta my homies rap. So it was just something I jumped into with them " Wap told Hot New Hip Hop in January.
In fact, Fetty Wap wasn't even signed to a label — which is usually the way artists get their work marketed, publicized and distributed to the general public — when he wrote "Trap Queen," with the help of his manager. He laid the track down in March of 2014, and immediately released it out into the universe. "We pushed it as if we were signed already," Wap told Hot New Hip Hop, "the song is that good."
He was 100 percent correct. "Trap Queen" is a catchy fucking song, and even though Fetty Wap had no representation, and no existing fan base, the track took off, slowly but surely.
America chose "Trap Queen" and made it a hit
"Trap Queen" hit the internet last year on March 8, and it was circulated via social media for a few months. By mid-November the song had reached a critical mass. Fetty Wap had signed to Lyor Cohen's brand new label 300 Entertainment, and "Trap Queen" had more than 60 million plays on Soundcloud.
But streaming doesn't count on the path to the number one spot as much as, say, someone purchasing your album. "Trap Queen" entered the Top 100 on March 7, 2015 — almost a full year after Wap launched it — and has simply refused to leave. By now it has spent 15 weeks in the Top 10 and 27 weeks on the chart as a whole. And democracy put it there.
Sleeper hits like this are more democratic. They don't get to the top 10 because they have controversial videos or a huge marketing and PR team to force them upon the public eye. They don't become famous because they are made by famous people. They become famous because they are what Americans want.
And democracy, well, Fetty Wap is all about democracy.
When Complex interviewed him about the creation of "Trap Queen" and why he wrote the song he said, "I made it for the people who listen to trap music without them knowing they’re listening to trap music… That’s basically what I tried to do without confusing everybody."
In other words, he made it for the general public, for the people of America. He wasn't creating an insider-song for his insider friends. He wasn't trying to break new ground in the hip-hop genre with cutting edge art and message. He was doing what all excellent pop stars do and diluting genre music into a catchy, profitable hit.
"I just do it and I make something you can just vibe to. I feel like when it's time for me to make, like, better lyrics and give people stories or whatever, I'll know when it's time for that," Fetty Wap told Billboard. "But right now what I'm doing is working for me."
Will Fetty Wap make the Top 40 more democratic?
Since "Trap Queen," he's released two more songs "679" and "My Way."
All three songs are currently in the top 20. That means that Fetty Wap is making up 15% of America's Top 20 right now, more than any other artist — including Taylor Swift.
That alone is amazing, but when you take into account the racial structure of the Top 40 and the way it is calculated, Fetty's success is even more incredible.
Of the 113 different songs that hit the Top 40 in the first half of 2015, only 45 of them were performed by at least one person of color.
That means a little less than 40% (39.8) of the songs that have charted highly this year have even included a person of color in them. This statistic is even worse than the breakdown of gender in the top 40, which revealed that while 45% of bands included at least one woman, only 29% of performers were mainly female.
Here's how Billboard has written that their chart is broken down: "Generally speaking, our Hot 100 formula targets a ratio of sales (35-45%), airplay (30-40%) and streaming (20-30%)."
So there are two huge advantages for white artists releasing music: They are more likely to get radio play, and more likely to find affluent fans who are willing to pay money to purchase their music. The radio, historically, has been very racially divided (in the '60s there were still separate stations for white performers and black performers), and the radio is where 96% of Americans listen to music (according to the Nielsen ratings data).
It's not surprising, then, that it's easier for white performers and performers who are already famous to break through into the Top 40 regardless of how relevant or good their song is.
But since "Trap Queen" is now arguably one of — if not THE — Song of the Summer, Fetty Wap is enjoying a little bit of that name recognition cushion himself. When he released his third single, "My Way," featuring Monty last week, there had already been a video of Rihanna dancing to it in a club. It's only been in the Top 100 for three weeks, but last week it jumped 80 spots into the Top 10. That's the biggest jump for any song since Katy Perry's "Roar."
America is speaking up, and we want more Fetty Wap.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.