July 16, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Last year, Travie McCoy was in a Los Angeles studio working on his debut solo album when producer-singer pal Bruno Mars, 24, came to him with a work in progress. ”He had the hook planned out,” recalls McCoy. ”The first line was ?I want to be a billionaire/So f—in’ bad.’ ” Amazingly, the rapper’s initial instinct was to pass on the catchy, reggae-tinged track. ”I was like, ?Dude, we’re in a recession right now. I’m gonna get crucified.’ ”

Only after returning home to Miami did McCoy decide the tune had potential after all. He soon penned verses that counterbalanced the hook’s materialism with goofy humor and flashes of political conscience (”I’d probably visit where Katrina hit/And damn sure do a lot more than FEMA did”). ”I made it a lot more relatable,” he says. Indeed, the single has quickly taken off, making McCoy a solo star. As for his first billion? He’s still working on that. ”I’m just making it out of the thousandaire range,” he laughs.

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