During the dark, horrifying Macklemore Ascendancy period of 2013, there was a lot of talk about how the top spot on the Billboard singles charts had become a whites-only zone. And it’s true: In the past few years, white pop-rappers like Macklemore and Iggy Azalea have managed to blow up huge by bypassing rap’s traditionally black and urban audience, marketing themselves directly to white suburban kids. They haven’t had to cross over, since they were born on the other side of that divide. In the last decade, things were different: Atlanta anthems would catch on first in the city’s strip clubs, then its non-strip clubs, then its rap radio, then rap radio elsewhere, then finally to pop paydirt. It happened over and over, and now it doesn’t happen anymore. But things have gotten a bit more interesting since Billboard started including YouTube plays in its efforts to tally up the charts. Now, every once in a while, street songs will bubble up out of nowhere, barnstorming the Billboard top 10 with little-to-no radio play. It happened last year with Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga,” and now it’s happening even more with Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen,” the profoundly goofy love-howl that’s currently sitting at #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100. By the time you’ve read this, there’s a chance that it’s taken the top spot. “Trap Queen” is more than a year old now, and it’s been picking up steam online for months, doing most of its work with no label or management company behind it. It’s an organic smash. Even if you hate the song — and a lot of people really hate the song — you have to respect its underdog story. It’s an organic hit, and we don’t get many of those.
Fetty Wap is a hard-luck story himself: A young guy from Paterson, New Jersey — never exactly a rap hotbed — with one eye and no real industry connections who has still found himself in this spot. Fetty lost his eye to glaucoma as a baby, and he grew up in a backwater housing project. The fact that he had enough confidence and charisma to bawl this song in the first place feels like a triumph of the human spirit. The success of “Trap Queen” feels even more miraculous once you actually listen to the thing. This isn’t a song that approximates big-money rap music well enough on a budget. It’s a gleefully amateurish wailing mess, a celebration of tone-deafness. There’s rapping on “Trap Queen,” but the only real reason to call it a “rap song” — and, by extension, the only reason to call Fetty Wap a rapper — is that Fetty Wap can’t sing. His voice is a huge, grating, joyously obnoxious honk. It’s closer to being the voice I use when I’m trying to annoy my wife enough that she starts laughing than it is to anything you’d expect to sound in the Billboard top 10. “Trap Queen” is ostensibly a love song directed at a round-the-way girl — Fetty Wap chivalrously showing his girl how to cook crack, tipping her a ton of money when he’s at the strip club. But I don’t think “Trap Queen” is blowing up so ridiculously because women are fantasizing about being the girl Fetty is honking about. Instead, “Trap Queen” belongs to the lineage of Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend” and the “I wish I never met her at all” part from Jay-Z’s “I Just Wanna Love U.” It’s popular because it’s fun to sing along really loud with rappers who can’t sing. Even if you think you hate “Trap Queen,” if you hear it in any sort of loud communal setting, there is a very high chance that you will find yourself braying along. It’s just that kind of song. And it may not be the last.
Last week, Drake pulled a Drake and showed up on a remix of Fetty Wap’s “My Way,” a song with a meditative synth-beat and a hook that’s just as much of a howler as “Trap Queen.” In doing so, Drake effectively saved Fetty from one-hit wonder status singlehandedly. The last couple of times Drake did this, on Migos’ “Versace” and iLoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday,” he gave both of those songs huge boosts and helped nudge the artists who made those songs to stardom. There’s a difference this time, though. Migos and Makonnen were bubbling-under Atlanta sensations when Drake jumped on those two songs. Fetty is something else. After all, Fetty already has a hit as big as anything Drake’s ever done. Drake has a ridiculous number of hits, but the only one that’s ever reached #2 on the Billboard chart — the spot that “Trap Queen” occupied when the “My Way” remix hit the internet — was “Best I Ever Had” in 2009. (Drake did guest on Rihanna’s “What’s My Name,” which hit #1 in 2010, but none of his solo tracks has ever topped the chart.) So it’s worth wondering who’s boosting who here. I don’t know whether Fetty’s clanging wail will stick around. But right now, this feels almost like Drake coopting a rising figure so in a way that prevents him from threatening Drake’s top-dog story. If Fetty really does rise to true stardom, Drake has now written himself into that narrative. The “My Way” remix is a good song, but it’s also canny empire-building. It’s Drake betting on a prospect, and the fact that Drake sees enough in Fetty enough to do that is, by itself, interesting.
Side note: If you’re wondering where “Trap Queen” ranks in the “hits by one-eyed rappers” pantheon, as I was, here’s the answer: It’s an easy #1! The only Slick Rick song that ever even made the U.S. Hot 100 was 1994’s “Behind Bars,” which only made it to #87. The fact that “Children’s Story” never made the mainstream chart is some kind of historical atrocity. (Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It,” which sampled “Children’s Story,” made it to #12 in 1995, but you can’t really give Rick credit for that.) Meanwhile, the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks On Me,” featuring that great Halloween story from the half-blind Bushwick Bill, topped out at #23 in 1991. If any other one-eyed rappers have ever landed on the Hot 100, I can’t think of who they might be.
As it happens, we’re having a big moment for organic, random hits from sing-rappers crashing their way into the Hot 100. If “Trap Queen” does climb its way to #1, the song it replaces will likely be Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s current chart-topper “See You Again.” “See You Again” isn’t exactly an out-of-nowhere viral hit; it’s a song from a hit movie made by an established star. But “See You Again” wasn’t even the first single from the Furious 7 soundtrack, and it gained most of its success from people going to see Furious 7, loving that Paul Walker goodbye scene, and going home to download the thing. I will confess that I thought noting of the song before seeing the movie, and now I sort of love it, though that love is bound up totally and completely with loving the Fast & Furious movies. Also of note: Thanks to that song and “Black & Yellow,” Wiz Khalifa now has two bona fide #1 songs, which is almost impossible for any rapper who isn’t making Flo Rida/Pitbull style EDM-rap. That’s twice as many #1 singles as solo Jay-Z and double infinity times as many as solo Nas. But a success story even more impressive than “See You Again” and “Trap Queen” might be the song at #9. T-Wayne is a Houston rapper with some vague 1017 Brick Squad affiliation, and his “Nasty Freestyle” is literally just a half-sung freestyle over Bandit Gang Marco’s “Nasty,” currently at #65 on the Hot 100. It has no chorus, and its video is just T-Wayne wandering around what looks like an abandoned suburban parking lot. But it’s catchy as hell, it has good punchlines, and it’s pushed its way into the top 10 based almost entirely on YouTube plays. Songs like these are torching the hell out of ordained hits like Big Sean’s “Blessings,” and their success is a nice reminder of how goddam anarchic rap music is when it’s working right.
1. Young Thug – “Power”
How can Young Thug make it sound this easy? A few days after stepping outside his comfort zone to rap on Jamie xx’s transcendent “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times),” Thug goes right back to playing his lane, and that’s transcendent, too. Here, he’s in gravelly-croon mode over a gorgeous beat from London On Da Track. And even if the lyrics only barely make sense when they’re even coherent (“she sucked like eight dicks, I call her octagon”), it comes out sounding cooler than fuck. Sheesh.
2. Nacho Picasso & 88 Ultra – “What My Gun Say”
The very next song on the new Nacho Picasso/88 Ultra EP samples the Twin Peaks theme, but this is still the creepiest thing on a very creepy record. Nacho has this amazing ominous singsong, a slithering delivery that can be so much more unsettling than any other rap intimidation tactic. And when he’s floating through this haze of goth-chimes, he’s right at home.
3. Chedda Da Connect – “Flicka Da Wrist (Desert Storm Remix)” (Feat. French Montana, Rick Ross, Plies & Maino)
“Flicka Da Wrist,” from the unknown-to-me Atlanta rapper Chedda Da Connect, is another one of these bubbling-under rap hits that has organically wormed its way into people’s lives; it crashed its way into the lower reaches of the Hot 100 this past week. It’s a song with a monster hook but rapping I can’t really endorse, so it’s high time it got a remix with some real professional rappers on it. Plies wins this one so easily.
4. Jadakiss & Styles P – “Block Work”
In which two old Yonkers gods hijack a 2000 Cam’ron/Prodigy drug-sales-stress classic to kick craggy, wizened tag-team flows and provide context for the Baltimore riots: “You read more, you see more / You tearing shit up on the streets of Bmore / Cuz people don’t know what it’s like to be poor / The hood is a one-way, ain’t no detour.”
5. Milli Millz – “Hustle” (Feat. King Louie)
Milli Millz is from Montreal, and he raps like he’s from Philly. I don’t know if he chose a name so close to “Meek Mill” as a tribute, but it sounds like it, and that’s good. More people should rap like Meek Mill. And a fired-up track like this is a perfect context for King Louie’s gravelly, gasping authority.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
— illroots 4 the kids (@illroots) May 13, 2015