Shortly after T-Pain launched his channel on the vvideo game streaming site Twitch, he went on an extended riff about the secret shame of being a lifelong gamer. “For many years, I’ve been led to believe that we should all be hiding the fact that we’re gamers,” he said, explaining that his industry peers had mocked him relentlessly about his favorite hobby.
It’s the kind of talk that brings to mind tired tropes about bullied nerds getting shoved into lockers. T-Pain’s self-image as a rapper-turned-gamer is also at odds with the wider culture: Hip-hop is the defining style of the era and America’s chief musical export, and the video games market is a prestigious and highly lucrative industry. ($116 billion in revenue in 2017, outperforming Hollywood for eight years running.)
Rap and video games are both outsider artforms that have rocketed into the mainstream over the past decade, so why the inferiority complex? One straightforward explanation is that, while Black and Latino people play more videogames per capita than white people, they’re vastly underrepresented in the industry and conversation around games.
But we’re starting to see some long-overdue shifts to this dynamic, with one high-profile rapper after another making headlines as they race to embrace their inner gamer. Modern hip-hop production leans hard into video game-style electronica, as seen with the meteoric rise of Metro Boomin and Zaytoven, and even Snoop Dogg is getting in on the action.
On a balmy February night in Atlanta, Fetty Wap holds court at the Buckhead Theatre for his pre-show Virtual Reality Game World event, sponsored by Playstation and Spotify. The event is part fan meet-and-greet, and part showcase for the VR features of the most recent game in Sony’s hugely popular Gran Turismo racing series.
There’s no fanfare as Fetty enters the room, aside from the dull hum of the Playstation PR people filming his every move. “Thank ya’ll for coming out and showing love,” he says as he turns to the assembled fans in the room. He flashes a small grin before sitting down in an ergonomic chair, controller in hand.
He brushes his back his trademark red-brown locs before lowering the TRON-esque Playstation VR headset over his head, and mouths a silent “woah” as the game boots up. Someone from the Playstation team spends several minutes fiddling with menu settings before handing the controller back.
Fetty selects his car (a Mercedes-Benz, natch) and starts the race. The audience sees the same thing on TV that Fetty sees in his VR headset, and the experience is like watching high-speed dashcam footage that bobs and jitters with every slight head motion. As the green light signals the start of the race, he tenses his shoulders and starts rotating the controller left and right to steer his car. On screen, the driver’s hands move along with the controller.
At first, it doesn’t go well. Fetty whiffs the first turn, and his car spends several seconds grinding into the roadside barriers, tires squealing as he struggles to course correct.
“Nah, I don’t like these controls,” he grimaces, shaking his head. “It don’t feel right, it’s too tight.”
Finally, after a few more minutes diving through menus and settings, the gyroscopic steering is swapped out for regular analog controls. Fetty is immediately more comfortable with this setup, relaxing and settling back into his chair.
Now that the controls aren’t getting in the way, Fetty’s natural finesse as a gamer starts to shine through. He blazes effortlessly through sharp corners, braking and accelerating around bends with a practiced rhythm.
“Yeahhh, that’s the one,” he brags as he powers through another curve. “This is my shit!”
His fans have huddled into a tight semi-circle around him, phones out, to watch the master at work. He finishes the first track, and then immediately queues up a second. And once that’s done, he launches into a third.
Fetty is no gaming dilettante, after all. Not only is he a certified racing game fanatic, he co-signed (and put his name on) a popular and well-reviewed mobile racer, Fetty Wap Nitro Station Stories.
His extensive experience with games has also helped him overcome the elephant in the room: His vision. Modern VR headsets are designed for users with two eyes, but Fetty famously only has one. You absolutely can still enjoy VR games with one eye, but it’s considered a sub-optimal way to play.
But for a seasoned pro like Fetty, though, not even accessibility hurdles can get in the way of a good time. If the future of video games looks like anyone, it’s Fetty Wap.
As the pre-show event winds down, he removes the headset and turns to his fans to dish out daps, selfies and autographs.
“It’s pretty good,” he says with a smile when asked about the game. “You know I love this stuff.”