October 8, 2015 6:06 AM EDT

In July 2014, the New York City DJ Mister Cee was ecstatic about a new single from a rapper in nearby Paterson, N.J. “I want to get this record on before it gets to the city, because it’s going to get to New York,” Cee told listeners of the influential hip-hop station Hot 97. “The name of the song is ‘Trap Queen.'” Then he introduced Fetty Wap to the world, spinning an outlaw love song that’s simultaneously awestruck and streetwise, with lyrics about hanging out at the mall and trying out pick-up lines–“I’m like, Hey, what’s up, hello”–alongside veiled references to cooking crack cocaine and buying his-and-her “matching Lambos” (as in Lamborghinis).

But what sells the song is Fetty’s unbridled singing, which brings to mind the passionate wail of the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs. Paired with the skittering, skeletal beats that propel the hip-hop subgenre known as Trap&B, “Trap Queen” rang out with honesty and humor, contrasting sharply with glossier, club-ready hits.

Mister Cee was dead-on about “Trap Queen” getting to New York–although he didn’t anticipate how it would infect the rest of the country and turn Fetty Wap, 24, into one of 2015’s most improbable success stories. Kanye West declared it “my favorite song right now” when he introduced Fetty at a February concert; Jay Z and Beyoncé were spotted dancing along in the audience. Taylor Swift brought him onstage at one of her summer shows to perform the breakout hit. And “Trap Queen,” which peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart in May, was just the start of Fetty’s run. In July, “My Way” entered the Top 10, followed quickly by “679.” “The most surprising thing about this past year is really how much support I’ve received from everyone and how big ‘Trap Queen’ got,” Fetty tells TIME via email.

Born Willie Maxwell II in 1991, he suffered from congenital glaucoma and lost his left eye at 6 months of age. A high school dropout, he played piano and drums in his youth “just for fun” and was inspired to start rapping by artists such as Atlanta’s Gucci Mane and Memphis M.C. Juicy J of Three 6 Mafia. (Fetty is street slang for money, and the Gucci Mane nickname Guwop provided the second half of his stage name.) Fetty’s rapping slowly morphed into his current style, a cross between singing and rhyming that he developed “about two years ago.” Which is also when he stopped wearing his prosthetic eye at home, seeking a look that would set him apart. It worked. For months, the hip-hop world was abuzz with rumors about the cause; some said it was a shotgun blast, others a firecracker. He finally came clean in February, telling Sirius XM’s DJ Self, “I never got shot in my eye. The song was getting hotter, the pictures were getting viral–I just let it build up.”

On Oct. 4, Fetty Wap’s self-titled album entered the Billboard album chart at No. 1, less than two weeks after a motorcycle accident left his leg broken in three places. (It also earned him three summonses from Paterson police, including driving without a license, not having insurance and failing to provide proof of registration.) The album relies almost exclusively on Fetty’s charismatic vocals, applied to songs about big-money dreams and rough times in Paterson’s projects. The only guests are members of the Remy Boyz, his cognac-obsessed hometown crew. The result bridges the gap between sweetness and sin, innocent joy and illegal thrills. Fetty Wap is a player who still manages to be playful, and that’s just as addictive as any product you could ever buy on the street.

–MAURA JOHNSTON

This appears in the October 19, 2015 issue of TIME.

More Must-Read Stories From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com.

You May Also Like
EDIT POST