The man seemed almost too good to be true.
In Paterson, one of the poorest cities in America, a suddenly-rich, home-grown pop star stepped forward as a community philanthropist.
Such was the image that the rapper with the stage name "Fetty Wap” wanted to project.
Today we know that image was a lie. Fetty Wap, now 31, was living a double life that reflected his dual names — Fetty Wap, the rapper-turned-do-good-community-activist, and Willie Junior Maxwell II, Fetty Wap’s legal name, a drug dealer now heading to a federal prison.
The downfall of Fetty Wap is a tragedy on many levels — for him, for his family, for those who believed in his sincerity and, ultimately, for the city he called home. But more broadly, this is also a story of how our culture all too easily embraces celebrity, no questions asked.
To understand this arc of sadness, let’s turn back the clock.
'In love with the money'
In 2014, Maxwell, under the name Fetty Wap, scored a major rap hit with “Trap Queen,” a song in which he rapped about selling drugs and buying a Ferrari and a Lamborghini.
“In love with the money,” Fetty Wap sang. “I ain’t never lettin’ go.”
The song was nominated for a Grammy and won awards from MTV, BET and Billboard. In a review, The New York Times praised “Trap Queen” as “shimmering and yelping and borderline whimsical.”
By the end of the summer of 2015, with “Trap Queen” still at the top of the charts, Fetty Wap announced he would play a free concert for Paterson students and give away backpacks and iPads.
“Without Paterson I wouldn't be Fetty Wap," he announced — an understatement if ever there was one.
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Paterson Mayor Joey Torres, who would end up in jail for illegally ordering city employees to renovate a warehouse owned by his relatives, called Fetty Wap’s concert a “homecoming welcoming party” and “a true rags-to-riches story, a gentleman who never lost sight of what he wanted to do in life, and persevered.”
Torres’ praise was yet another understatement. But such was the start of the love affair between Paterson and Fetty Wap.
Over the next three years, Fetty Wap presented himself as something of a civic savior, not to mention a rising music star. His face appeared in a car racing video game. He strutted down a runway during New York City’s Fashion Week. Paterson and other communities in New Jersey and New York rolled out the welcome mat.
A few months after the free concert, which included members of two of Paterson’s most violent gangs pledging a truce and sitting together, Fetty Wap gave away several hundred free Thanksgiving turkeys to city residents. Three days earlier, he appeared on a balcony at the Westfield Garden State Plaza mall in Paramus and tossed $2,000 to shoppers.
In September 2017, Fetty Wap showed up in Hackensack, giving away cash to kids on the street. The TMZ tabloid-like digital video platform called him “Summer Santa Claus.”
Six months later, Fetty Wap, who dropped out of Paterson's Eastside High School and says his family was forced to rely on food stamps during his youth in the city, was being compared to the Easter Bunny after he handed out gift cards to city residents just in time for them to buy new outfits and food for the Easter holiday.
"Anything I can do to help especially with my hometown I'm going to always be there," he told NorthJersey.com. "Coming from not having anything to being able to do a lot more than what I did growing up to be able to live a different lifestyle, it kind of really empowered me to help as many people as I could.”
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The gift card handouts even propelled Fetty Wap to a place in celebrity-media nirvana. The New York Post’s Page Six canonized him by declaring that he “is no stranger to giving back.”
Everything was not so rosy, however. Indeed, some troubling signs about Fetty Wap also surfaced.
Arrests — and drugs
In November 2017, Fetty Wap was charged with drunken driving and drag racing on a highway in Brooklyn. Two years later, in Las Vegas, he was arrested on a charge of punching a hotel security officer. A Las Vegas judge later agreed to drop the charge if Fetty Wap stayed out of trouble.
Meanwhile, there were lingering concerns, voiced by Paterson educators and others, that Fetty Wap’s songs contained far too many references to drugs. And, finally, there was the not-so-small personal news that Fetty Wap fathered six children over seven years with six different women.
No matter. If the man showed up with money and gifts, why should anyone complain?
Last October, however, Fetty Wap’s celebrity run came to an end. As he was about to take the stage at Citi Field in Queens for a music festival, FBI agents arrested him, charging him with being part of a Long Island-based conspiracy to smuggle large amounts of heroin, fentanyl and other drugs into the New York City area.
Did this scheme include passing drugs directly to dealers in Paterson? Federal prosecutors did not specifically say, only noting in court that Fetty Wap helped to distribute “well in excess” of 500 grams of cocaine in New Jersey.
The irony here is as obvious and ugly as the cracks on Paterson’s mean streets. Here was the alleged philanthropist, who presented himself as wanting to help people in need, now in handcuffs and charged with pushing the kinds of substances that left behind a trail of hardship and death.
Fetty Wap was released on $500,000 bail. But earlier this month, after he allegedly pointed a gun and threatened to kill another man during a FaceTime call, a federal judge revoked his bail and sent him back to jail to await the outcome of his trial.
Fetty Wap won’t be going to trial, however. Earlier this week, he pleaded guilty to the most serious charge against him: conspiracy to distribute and possess controlled substances.
The plea agreement focuses only on cocaine and not heroin or fentanyl, but it carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison, with a maximum of 40 years. As bad as that is, it could have been worse. Fetty Wap’s admission of guilt allowed him to avoid a potential life sentence if he had been convicted on all charges he faced.
Standing before a federal magistrate judge in Central Islip, New York, Fetty Wap declared that he “agreed with other people to distribute cocaine” and that he “knew the conduct was illegal.” Prosecutors said Fetty Wap waived his right to appeal as long as he was sentenced to 10 years and one month or less.
In other words, Fetty Wap is going to prison for a significant number of years, leaving behind his false legacy and the children he fathered. His music career, such as it was, is essentially over.
On the streets of Paterson, there were no memorials, no gatherings of fans to lament the loss of their rap equivalent of the Pied Piper who came to town with offers of free concerts, free turkeys and other gifts.
In court, after pleading guilty under the name Willie Junior Maxwell II, Fetty Wap turned to a small cadre of supporters before heading back to his jail cell to await sentencing in several months.
“I love you,” he said.
Maybe he meant it. Maybe not. This was, after all, Fetty Wap. He seemed too good to be true.
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com as well as the author of three critically acclaimed non-fiction books and a podcast and documentary film producer. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Fetty Wap: Paterson NJ rapper's secret life catches up with him