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French Montana, Rap’s Worst Historian

The Bronx rapper is too gauche for rap traditionalists, and too flat to be an innovator — which is why we love him

Ringer illustration/Getty Images
Ringer illustration/Getty Images

Somewhere in New York City, right this very moment, “Said N Done” is blasting out of no fewer than a dozen car stereos, windows rolled all the way down. And somewhere in New York City, no fewer than a dozen rap traditionalists are hearing it, and grimacing.

That’s because “Said N Done” (the fourth single off MC4, French Montana’s second studio album, which leaked early last weekend) is the platonic French Montana document, hard-headed and dumb and brilliant. It’s built around a lilting sample of Wendy Rene’s 1964 Stax single “After Laughter (Comes Tears).” That song is objectively perfect source material for a beat — RZA proved as much in 1993, flipping “After Laughter” into “Tearz,” the stone-cold classic from the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album. It’s already been done, and flawlessly. So why run it back?

For the same reason that French Montana does just about everything French Montana does: because he wants to, and because he can. But French, nominally a New York rapper, doesn’t care to make a loving recreation of early-’90s hip-hop. Instead, it’s a reboot, a cash grab, a blunt rolled with an onionskin page from Empire City. French isn’t content to swipe just from Staten Island — he grabs from every other outer borough, too. On “Said N Done,” French, who was born in Morocco and grew up in the Bronx, shamelessly rips the greatest hits of Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, and floats over the top, reckless, with Harlem’s own A$AP Rocky. As the two weave boastful, impolitic verses, French quotes (“quotes”) the Notorious B.I.G.; the producers Earl & E drop in one of Busta Rhymes’s ad-libs from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario.” It’s New York rap, but not really. Listening to “Said N Done” feels like watching 5 Pointz painted over, or seeing CBGB turned into a John Varvatos store. It’s as comprehensive a desecration of New York rap history as I’ve ever heard — and I love every moment of it.

You’d have to be insane to sample “After Laughter” in 2016. You’d have to have unearthly levels of self-assurance. You’d have to be immune to criticism, to the barbershop supremacy of the top-five list, to an entire slice of rap-head internet. But you’d also have to know that “Tearz” and “Gimme the Loot” and “Scenario” are stone-cold classics. You’d have to care about New York, and its rap history. And then you’d have to be willing to trample all over it.

Not incidentally, these are all accurate ways to describe French Montana.

New York is a city for strivers. If you work hard enough, if you’re strategic enough in your collection of friendships and alliances, status begins to look like a ladder. Or an elevator. Or maybe even a chauffeured car, slipping over the George Washington Bridge and into a suburban New Jersey mansion.

French Montana, born Karim Kharbouch, is a striver. He moved to the Bronx from Morocco at 13, and started climbing. He didn’t speak a lick of English, but by the early aughts, he began releasing a series of rap DVDs called Cocaine City. The American Dream: If you can rap here, you can rap anywhere. So he rapped some. He got shot in the head, recovered, kept rapping. He palled around with the Rockaway rapper Chinx; together, they were the Coke Boys. They were very New York. They rapped. He hooked up with the Dipset-adjacent Max B, your favorite cult rapper’s favorite cult rapper. They rapped, too. And who was French, the kid from Rabat, to know that Max B wasn’t as cool as Jay Z? French was an American, Bronx-forged, and he went at things as he’d taught himself, freestyle. Forget New York’s self-stylization as the center of the hip-hop universe. French created his own canon.

Max B and French Montana are friends, but Max first operated as a kind of mentor to French. With Max locked up on a 75-year sentence, French is dutiful, making sure his friend’s name rings out. French Montana — who is now rich — is still plugging away on mixtapes, reminding everyone who started the wave, giving Max valuable album real estate to rap over the phone from New Jersey State Prison. French Montana might be awful as a ’90s rap historian, but it would be hard to find someone who better embodies the spirit of one of New York’s weirdest, most magical rappers.

French made friends in high places, too: He signed with Akon’s label and then finessed a joint deal with Diddy’s Bad Boy and Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group. Call it friendly, or call it calculating, or just call it a painstakingly honed instinct for survival: French kept one foot firmly in New York City, while the other sought higher ground. He’d successfully made the leap from Morocco to Lehman and Roosevelt to the Canal Street rap-tape circuit to a major-label deal — so why wouldn’t he keep climbing?

You can hear that tension in “Shot Caller,” his first hit single. The beat cribs blatantly from Lords of the Underground’s “Funky Child,” and rips bits from from Jay Z’s “Can I Get A…” and (again!) “Scenario.” Someone — French, maybe, but more likely his pride-of-Cobble-Hill producer Harry Fraud — did their New York homework. But that’s where the history lesson stops. Because French Montana doesn’t rap like he’s from the Bronx, or anywhere else in New York. He raps like he’s from Atlanta, maybe? Or some liminal internet zone spanning from the American South to Casablanca, a rainbow of ones and zeroes. He’s mealy-mouthed, slow, over beats that plod and skitter — slowed-down trap joints strafed by sirens and horns. It’s Miami by way of Memphis, unless it’s Houston — with a handful of New York rap sample-staples tucked in to assure listeners that they’re in careful, history-minded hands. It’s a pleasant irony: New York, the city of a thousand rap commandments, produced — or at least adopted — a son who can read the tablets, but doesn’t care to follow any of them.

After “Shot Caller,” French kept moving up, releasing one borderless banger after another, a mix of his own songs and features on other artists’ singles: “Pop That,” quite possibly mankind’s greatest stripper anthem. “Ain’t Worried About Nothin’,” which got a Miley Cyrus remix. “Stay Schemin’.” “Loyal.” “I Luh Ya Papi,” a hilariously miscalculated — and cheesily delightful — pairing with the BX’s own Jennifer Lopez. These are hits, all linked by French Montana’s presence — and yet that presence is mostly unremarkable. He’ll drawl about being rich, say something awful about women, groan his signature “Haannn,” and be out. Drake will complain, or Rick Ross will bellow, or Diddy will wave a bottle of Ciroc. They’re the point. French will smile throughout.

Here’s the thing, though: French Montana singles are a fucking gas. “Pop That”? Pop that! Pop it one thousand times, please. The kid from Morocco is in the room with the shot-callers, the schemers, with those who ain’t worried about nothin’, and he wants you to know how good that feels. He keeps taking classic cars (this one’s Uncle Luke’s “I Wanna Rock”) and retrofitting them with neon-light body kits. He’d moved to a new country, learned a new language, then learned another new language inside that first one, and mastered it. And now it’s paying off.

By 2014, the first wave of singles has come and gone; Excuse My French, his major-label debut, rides up to no. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart. French Montana is a burgeoning star, basically, even though he doesn’t seem like one. And he’s done it via the assiduous maintenance of friendships. How many people can sign deals with multiple rap kingpins with a minimum of drama? How many rappers that have CVs with a skills section reading exclusively “Haannn” can keep showing up on features? But there are limits, French learns, to what rap can give him. Time ticks on: He’s 29, his long-brewing divorce finalized. He’s making up for lost time.

So French hits reality TV. He starts dating Khloe Kardashian in 2014, appears on Keeping Up, and is generally a mookish, charming presence. They date for a while, and then they break up (for real) in December of that year. But French never really leaves. He likes it here, and who wouldn’t? So there he is, still hanging around on E! in 2016, palling around his little korner of the Kardashian empire with notable sometimes-exes Scott Disick and Tyga. He tiptoes away from the Bronx, away from the Coke Boys, ever so slightly into (lucrative, well-branded) self-parody. He buys a pet monkey and names it Julius Ceasor (sic). French Montana is having fun, and making friends. He is corny as all hell, and it is endearing. But what is the utility in being cool when you’ve come this far, and have so far still to go? To paraphrase another notable New York striver: If you’d escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Calabasas getting fucked up, too.

Given all that, it wouldn’t be unfair to categorize the entire upward trajectory of French Montana’s career as a case study in “forgetting where you came from.” But it’s not quite that simple. Because for all his hamfisted jousts at stardom, French is still just a goofy dude from the Bronx who likes to hang out with his friends — even if that group of buddies now includes Tyga and Scott Disick. Because, all these years later, French is still riding the Coke Wave: a parallel, heavy-Bronx career shadowing the real one, a timeline where he’s at the VMAs to perform with Fat Joe, not just as someone’s less-famous date. Over this past year, he’s put out a mixtape with Fetty Wap (Coke Zoo) — but also one with the imprisoned Max B (Wave Gods). He’s jumped on the old-is-new New York anthem “All the Way Up.” He’s released a song like the mournful “Off the Rip,” which taught me that it’s OK if a song about stepped-on cocaine makes you cry. French is famous now, but he’s still French: in a time when when artists compete for our attention, spending NDA’d months crafting single perfect moments, he’s flooding the zone. Ubiquity might not be cool, but it’s quantifiable. Bars are great. Numbers are their own language.

Which brings us to MC4. It’s his second major-label release, but it’s titled as if it’s the fourth in his Kraft-themed mixtape series. This is pure French Montana: a little bit mocking, a little bit blind to the moment, a little bit pure workhorse, bootstraps, rise and grind. And the album isn’t even supposed to be out: Last week, French announced a delay to settle a few sample clearances, but an employee at Target missed the memo, put it out on shelves, and here we are. The leak feels unbelievably French: chasing stardom but falling short, playing it cool on the way to the club, and then tripping on the curb. It’s staggering, really: French Montana, king of the improbable, has engineered a physical leak in 2016. In the year of the surprise drop, French surprised himself.

MC4 suffers from that same self-stilting ambition. We know what French is good at: rapping like he’s punching a heavy bag. There’s a good deal of that here, along with some of his lesser proclivities. Drake guests to sell some singles; Kanye and Nas hang out near a plane. There are a few great moments (“Said N Done,” the Kodak Black–starring “Lockjaw”), but they’re just that: few.

Until we get to the album closer, “Chinx & Max/Paid For”: a two-part, nine-minute tribute to his best buddies, the departed Chinx and the incarcerated Max B. Both contribute improbable guest verses, and French cuts his own weepy rhyming with real-friend bullshitting (“That’s my n***a man, that’s my bro,” he raps in the intro. “I saw him last night drunk out his ass.”) It’s a messy, not-very-good song — I’m still not sure how the line “She bust it open like I paid for” made it into the hook of a track about best friendships cut tragically short — but it’s something real.

And for a moment, all the seeming inconsistencies resolve themselves. The “buts” become “ands,” all of them but one: French Montana is a New York rapper, and French Montana doesn’t care to jock New York rap history. French Montana’s Wikipedia page has an “exotic pets” section, and French Montana keeps grinding on mixtapes. French Montana is from the Bronx, and French Montana just bought Selena Gomez’s old house. French Montana wants to be famous — but mostly, French Montana just wants to see his friends again.