Wave Runners: French Montana Is an Expert Navigator of Commercial Street Rap's Waters
The head Coke Boy is smarter than he gets credit for.
It feels like French Montana is everywhere at once right now. Not long after a streak of lavish Grammy parties in Los Angeles, the Moroccan born, South Bronx raised rapper popped up on DJ Khaled’s We the Best Radio on Apple Music last weekend to premiere a new mixtape called Wave Gods. Montana is currently thundering through a whirlwind press run to promote his mixtape and the forthcoming Queen Latifah produced romantic comedy The Perfect Match, his first film. In a few days he expected in Dubai, and just weeks after that, he’ll join Rick Ross for two dates in the UK. French slides into the VICE office on a rainy midweek afternoon a little behind schedule, but with good reason. This afternoon, the rapper, actor, producer, and Coke Boys crew leader is occupying his most important role: father. French has rearranged his day to pick up his six-year-old son, who he brings along for the ride, nobly attempting to conduct rap business while maintaining a G-rated air. Everyone strains adorably to curb their use of profanity, and French, though his attention is scattered across the many moving pieces of his schedule, quietly keeps a watchful eye on his kid’s sugar intake.
French Montana is known to most as a party rapper and a jokester, the latter quality flashing as he casually prank calls a friend and carries out much of the afternoon wearing the bushy magenta fur hood of his slick black winter jacket. He seems grounded today, though. Catching a glimpse of the man just enjoying the warmth of family adds a depth to the precarious balancing act that is French Montana’s rap career, a decade-long array of peaks and valleys that teeters on the ever-shifting stock of the pop-trap charmer (which, it must be noted, is sort of in decline).
On wax, he’s a purveyor of hard edged but slight and good spirited trap who’s quietly versatile enough to fit into records by J-Lo and Miley Cyrus while associating in his own work with the likes of Rick Ross and Diddy and keeping up in his social life with Kanye West and the Kardashians. This savvy slipperiness has won him perennial work on the hip-hop remix circuit and is very new New York, but it’s also the reason people forget to mention artists like Nicki Minaj, French, and A$AP Rocky in conversations about the modern hip-hop pulse in the Big Apple. The city is in flux, restructuring constantly around surges of moneyed short-stay out-of-towners; how could the music ever maintain a singular identity?
Wave Gods revels in its many moods. It shifts restlessly between the throwback boom bap French and Harry Fraud famously mined for 2011’s “Shot Caller” (“Wave Gods” and “Old Man Wildin”), the brash sample choices of peak Dipset (“Jackson 5” and “Sanctuary Pt. 2”), and a very of-the-moment, codeine crazy trap (“Man of My City” and “Holy Moly”). Centering the jibing sounds is French in full reflection, coated in Auto-Tune and crooning through his thoughts. “After you get a couple drinks in you, you start hitting them notes,” he says with a smirk. “That’s how we came in the game. If you listen to all our first music, that’s how we came in. We’re kinda like the best at doing hooks.” The “we” refers to himself and his mentor and Wave Gods host Max B, influential Harlem rapper and arbiter of all things “wavy” who is currently in jail for a theft-turned-robbery that ended in a murder he says he didn’t commit.
Revisiting the old sound for the new tape is fortuitous timing: Max’s name came up last month when Wiz Khalifa and Kanye West went at it over West’s plan to call his seventh album Waves, as Wiz and others accused Kanye both of ignorance to Max’s work and arrogance in co-opting his slang. French helped dissolve tension behind the scenes and adds that Max could use the attention: “He’s appreciating all the love he gets, especially where he’s at right now.” Max’s legal situation looks dire; the sentence for his role in the robbery was 75 years, and he’s not eligible for parole until 2042.
“He’s fighting,” French says of his friend. “He’s fighting for his life. All we can do is keep him in our prayers, and hopefully everyone will be good. But I have a strong feeling he’s gonna come out.” He’s mum on more specifics, but at a stop at New York rap radio frontrunner Power 105 earlier in the week, he mentioned that Kanye has taken an interest in helping with Max B’s case, a silver lining around the Wiz-Kanye Waves spat if ever there was one.
While French seems upbeat about Max’s legal situation, he isn’t always this chipper. Wave Gods hews dark in its opening lines, where French raps, “They threw me in a black hole, had to climb up / Once Chinx passed took some time off.” Coke Boys’ next-at-bat Chinx was tragically killed in a shooting outside a nightclub last spring while he was working on his debut album Welcome to JFK, leaving family—he was a father of two—and friends reeling. The finished Welcome to JFK sold modestly, garnering considerable burn around New York City. “He wasn’t here to promote it,” French says of the album’s reception. “Rest in peace Chinx forever. You know how it goes.” Thankfully Welcome to JFK won’t be the last we hear from Chinx: “Actually we were just going through the hard drive today, and I heard, like, 20 songs.”
What’s the status of French’s own oft-delayed sophomore studio album Mac and Cheese? He won’t say when to expect an official release. (“I want it to be a surprise. I’m tired of calling out dates.”) But it’s coming along nicely: “I have a lot of records. Too many records. Miguel is on there. I have a song with me, Beanie Sigel, Styles P, and Jadakiss. I have something with Lil Wayne on there. And Chinx.” Wave Gods and last year’s more polished Casino Life 2: Brown Bag Legend are stopgap measures in part, French’s way of quenching fan thirst while he works the kinks out of the new album. “I feel like I owe that to my fans regardless of whether I’m following the politics of dropping an album with a label or not.”
The hesitance with Mac and Cheese seems rooted in the plight of French’s 2013 debut Excuse My French, which fought back withering reviews and a diffuse commercial veneer to spawn the platinum single “Pop That” and move upwards of 150,000 units. It was a respectable payday, but a hip-hop mainstream primed to judge the success of a release off its first week sales feasted on Excuse My French’s 56,000 unit week one, the suggestion being that the rapper should be further along for his excellent connections. French, too, seems frustrated by his current station on Wave Gods’ self-titled intro, as he quips, “Sitting in the crib dreaming of G5’s and Benzes / Why street rap ain’t selling like Kendrick?”
It’s a tricky time for commercial street rap. There is more of it being made now than perhaps ever before, but major labels exhibit increasing trepidation in dealing with musicians that could be considered legal (read: financial) liabilities. With the notable exceptions of Future and a few others, many of the major label Great Trap Hopes of the last few years have found themselves either floundering at retail, locked in inexplicable record label jujitsu, unceremoniously relegated back to the minors, or worse. But gruff New York street smarts never go out of style, and French Montana, a smart and affable personality with great connections and a greater sense of humor, will always find a way to get paid.
Craig is trying to figure out how to pull up to La Marina in the Titanic. Follow him on Twitter.