Thursday, September 24, 2015

album review: 'fetty wap' by fetty wap

I've stated a number of times this year that 2015 has been great for hip-hop. From the revival of more conscious hip-hop to the explosion of potency in the underground to genre-bending experiments to old veterans returning with what's always worked, it's a good time to be in the rap game right now.

And yet if you look at the mainstream charts, there's one name that stands out like a sore thumb, an artist who seemingly appeared out of nowhere and yet won over a crossover audience with hit after hit. And his name was Fetty Wap, the 'wap' getting added later as a tribute to his favourite rapper Gucci Mane. Okay, already we're not off to a great start - and dig into Fetty Wap's story and it doesn't seem to ring as all that different to many rappers in that lane. He grew up in the projects in New Jersey, started working on his rap career, and decided to throw more singing into his delivery because he wanted to do something a little 'different'. Of course, he's not alone in rappers who add sung vocals to their bars, but there were very few who could match his warbling, part-Haitian, part-Biz Markie voice. From there, he released a song called 'Trap Queen' in early 2014 - and a year later, it started climbing the charts. The incredibly delayed reaction can probably be attributed to shifts in the mainstream taste - Young Thug's half-sung, half-rapped style hadn't yet broke through with 'Lifestyle', and Future spent most of that year wallowing in depressed, angry mediocrity.

But Fetty Wap was different. He had energy and personality, a knack for impressively sticky hooks and decent enough writing for pop radio, and his synth-heavy beats were breezy and bright enough to draw a lot of attention. And the amusing thing is that it doesn't seem like Fetty Wap's team expected this much success to come this quickly, as he snagged a spot on the XXL Freshman list for 2015 and people started clamouring for that debut album. And I'll admit I was interested: sure, Fetty Wap could hold down singles, but a full album is a much bigger proposition, especially when said album is seventeen songs and runs over an hour. Not what I'd advise for a starting rapper riding a wave of hype, but if they're looking to strike while the iron's hot, this would be the way to do it. So what do we get from Fetty Wap?

Honestly, I got both more and less than what I was expecting. First, let me establish that in my quest for finding 'ignorant' hip-hop that I actually enjoy, Fetty Wap probably came the closest with this record - and yet with that, it's not without its fair share of issues. But the issues are mostly what you'd expect from a debut album that was hastily thrown together by a guy new to the industry trying to capitalize on a newfound success - as such, it's a bizarrely amateur patchwork of singles, mixtape tracks, and new material that can feel overlong and repetitive but is played so goddamn earnest that it's hard not to find some enjoyment in it all. In other words, even though this record is haphazard, cheap, and not all that intelligent, there's a spark of passion to it that managed to click with me.

And I think part of it is Fetty Wap himself. And I know what a bunch of you are thinking: 'he doesn't like Future or Young Thug, so why does he like this guy?' Well, part of it is that at his best, Fetty Wap can sound engaged and ride his beats pretty effectively. He doesn't feel the need to indulge in off-kilter Young Thug-esque vocal gymnastics or suffocate his voice in autotune like Future - his warbling rap-singing feels a shade more organic, and the fact that he actually does have some solid flows that can connect works in his favour. Then again, part of it might be the easy parallel that can be made with his friend Monty, who shows up on about half of this album for guest verses with a more conventional if more basic flow that helps Fetty Wap stand out even further. And sure, he's not exactly subtle, but I'll make the Biz Markie comparison again: it's so broad and goofy that's it's hard to dislike - and honestly it's why the moments where he does talk about screwing your girl like on the outro of 'Trap Queen' or the album lowpoint 'Couple Bands' where he compares his rough sex to beatings from Ike Turner and Mike Tyson... dude, you're not hard, stop trying for that.

Then again, trying to break down lyrically what Fetty Wap does here often proves futile, because if we're looking for content, you're not going to find all that much beyond flossing, a couple snaps against haters, shouts out for his crew, and more than your fair share of crooning verses where he shows a surprising amount of genuine tenderness. 'Trap Queen' is the easy example where they're baking pies together, but then there's 'My Way' where he talks about defending his girl's honour or 'Again' where he's trying to win her back, or the tribute to making love to his girl on 'Dats All Me' that's played with such sincerity it's hard to dislike. That said, sincerity and personality can only carry a record so far and this record runs out of unique material fast. Metaphors and bars get reused wholesale from song to song - there's a Mortal Kombat metaphor that gets used twice, and most of Fetty Wap's singles have bars that show up in fragments on other songs. And considering this album is seventeen tracks and over an hour, if Fetty Wap wanted to stick with unique content, he could have made a much stronger, more focused set of tracks at ten or eleven. On top of that, this is not an album that sticks to one topic well - on any given song, Fetty will be hyping his crew, blowing away his enemies, and flossing, and thus it can make otherwise decent songs hard to stand out from the pack.

And the exasperating thing is that if this album had more focus lyrically, it could have taken advantage of its greatest assets, which takes us to the instrumentation and production. Now I'll get the biggest criticism out of the way first: the production on this album sounds cheap and more often than not pretty thin. The synths and pianos are lightweight, the beats clearly all came from a preset, there's barely any texture, and the fake horns and strings on tracks like 'Jugg' are not fooling anyone. There's barely any feeling of opulence or grandeur or grit - if Fetty Wap and his producers had picked up these beats and synth tones from an online storefront, I wouldn't be surprised. But yet despite that, the foundational melodies behind this album are surprisingly strong, from the interweaving synth lines to the harmonized multi-tracking that gives this album more swell than you'd ever expect. And those melodies are near the forefront at all times - no drowning of the mix in bass, this record was made knowing that the way songs stick is with that melodic foundation. And there are a lot of songs that leverage it to the best of their ability: 'Trap Queen's blending of gleaming keys and chiptune against a buzzy backdrop, the muted melodic swells of 'How We Do Things' and the closer 'Rewind', the surprisingly strong symphonic swell of 'RGF Island' and 'I Wonder' that really could have used Fetty Wap going a little harder in the latter case, the guitar sneaking into the background on 'Time', or the more island-inspired progression on 'I'm Straight'. And then there's 'Trap Luv', easily my favourite track because that synth line on the hook really kicks with some impact as the bass kicks with each note - using your beat to augment your melody instead of overpower it, and making the most out of what you have. 

Now look, I'm not saying this is a great album - it's too long, it runs out of ideas quickly, and it's hard to ignore that this is an album coasting on personality and energy over anything close to content or a budget. But there's a certain charm and sense of fun to it when done right, and Fetty Wap gets that - and if you've liked material from Future or Young Thug or Migos, Fetty Wap brings a distinct enough flavour and personality to stand out in a good way. For me, this is a very solid 6/10 and a recommendation. I'm not going to promise you're going to get more than what you've already heard on the radio from Fetty Wap, but I kind of want to see this succeed. There's real potential here, and I want to see how far Fetty Wap can push it.

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