The man seemed almost too good to be true.
In Paterson, one of America’s poorest cities, a suddenly rich, homegrown pop star emerged as a community philanthropist.
This was the image that the rapper with the artistic name “Fetty Wap” wanted to project.
Today we know the picture was a lie. Fetty Wap, now 31, lived a double life that reflected his dual names — Fetty Wap, the rapper-turned-community-activist, and Willie Junior Maxwell II, the legal name of Fetty Wap, a drug dealer who now heads a federal prison.
Fetty Wap’s downfall is a tragedy on many levels—for him, for his family, for those who believed in his honesty, and ultimately, for the city he called home. But more broadly, this is also a story about how our culture embraces celebrity too easily, no questions asked.
To understand this arc of grief, let’s turn back the clock.
“In love with money”
In 2014, Maxwell, who goes by 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 money,” sang Fetty Wap. “I never let 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 screaming and borderline capricious.”
By the end of the summer of 2015, with “Trap Queen” still at the top of the charts, Fetty Wap announced that he would play a free concert for Paterson students and give away backpacks and iPads.
“Without Patterson 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 prison for illegally ordering city employees to renovate a warehouse owned by his relatives, called Fetty Wap’s concert a “homecoming party” and “a true story, a gentleman who never lost sight of what he wanted to do in life and persisted.”
Torres’ praise was yet another understatement. But that was the beginning of the love affair between Paterson and Fetty Wap.
Over the next three years, Fetty Wap presented himself as a civic savior, not to mention a rising music star. His face appeared in a car racing video game. She hit the catwalk during New York Fashion Week. Patterson and other communities in New Jersey and New York rolled out the welcome mat.
A few months after the free concert, which featured 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 the city’s residents. Three days earlier, he appeared on a balcony at Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus and threw $2,000 at shoppers.
In September 2017, Fetty Wap appeared in Hackensack, handing out cash to kids on the street. Tabloid-like digital video platform TMZ dubbed him “Summer Santa.”
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 compared to the Easter Bunny after handing out gift cards to city residents just in time to buy new clothes and food for the Easter holidays.
“Anything I can do to help, especially with my hometown, I’ll always be there,” he told NorthJersey.com. “From having nothing and being able to do so much more than I did growing up to being able to live a different lifestyle, it really empowered me to help as many people as I could.”
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Gift card flyers even propelled Fetty Wap to a place in celebrity media nirvana. The New York Post’s Page Six canonized him, declaring that he is “no stranger to giving back.”
However, all was not so rosy. Indeed, there have also been some worrying signs for Fetty Wap.
Arrests — and drugs
In November 2017, Fetty Wap was charged with DUI and drag racing on a freeway in Brooklyn. Two years later, in Las Vegas, he was arrested on charges of punching a hotel security guard. A Las Vegas judge later agreed to drop the charge if Fetty Wap stayed out of trouble.
Meanwhile, there were ongoing concerns, voiced by Paterson educators and others, that Fetty Wap’s songs contained too many drug references. And finally, there was the not-so-small personal news that Fetty Wap fathered six children in seven years with six different women.
Does not matter. If the man showed up with money and gifts, why should anyone complain?
Last October, however, Fetty Wap’s run of celebrity 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, accusing him of being part of a Long Island-based conspiracy to smuggle large quantities of heroin, fentanyl and other drugs into New York. City area.
Did this scheme involve transporting drugs directly to dealers in Paterson? Federal prosecutors didn’t say specifically, only noting in court that Fetty Wap helped distribute “well in excess” of 500 grams of cocaine in New Jersey.
The irony here is as obvious and ugly as the cracks in Patterson’s mean streets. Here was the supposed philanthropist, who presented himself as wanting to help people in need, now in handcuffs and accused of pushing the 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 brandished a gun and threatened to kill another man during a FaceTime call, a federal judge revoked his bail and sent him back to prison to await the outcome of his trial.
However, Fetty Wap will not be tested. Earlier this week, he pleaded guilty to the most serious charge against him: conspiracy to distribute and possess controlled substances.
The plea deal focuses only on cocaine, not heroin or fentanyl, but carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison, with a maximum of 40 years. As bad as it is, it could have been worse. Fetty Wap’s guilty plea allowed him to avoid a possible life sentence if convicted of all the charges he faced.
Standing before a federal judge in West Islip, New York, Fetty Wap said 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 by being 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 fake 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 mourn the loss of rap’s equivalent of the Pied Piper who came to town with offers of free concerts, free turkeys and other giveaways.
In court, after pleading guilty under the name Willie Junior Maxwell II, Fetty Wap addressed a small cadre of supporters before returning to his prison cell to await sentencing in several months.
“I love you,” he said.
Maybe he meant it. Probably not. This was Fetty Wap after all. 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 producer of podcasts and documentaries. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, sign up 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