Becoming an overnight success in the music industry can take years, and French Montana hasn’t always been draped in Versace silk. After pulling the plug on his debut album release date in July of last year for an opportunity to join Drake’s Club Paradise Tour, the moment he’s been waiting for has finally arrived: Excuse My French is here.
Still following the traditional hand-to-hand mixtape blueprint at this time two years ago, French Montana had already been serving the streets without any major-label backing for more than a decade. The Bronx-raised rapper was forced to find comfort in his arduous underdog status as he tried proving himself over and over again, portioning out upwards of fifteen mixtapes and thirteen installments of his Cocaine City DVD series to make a name for himself in NYC’s hip hop game. Fast-forward to the present day and Montana’s voice is all over the radio, blasting out of car windows and night clubs. He’s palling around with Maxim’s Hot 100 chart-topper Miley Cyrus, guesting on numerous hip hop tracks, and his long-awaited debut album is quite literally brimming with big-name features.
Not heralded for crafting sophisticated bars, it’s Montana’s relentless execution and je ne sais quoi ability to tap into the appeal of the streets that are his biggest assets. After a 6-month deal with Akon in 2009, French, born Karim Kharbouch, triggered a record-label courting period that eventually led to business relationships with both MMG and Bad Boy in late 2011.
Now comfortably seated at tables with hip hop elitists Puffy and Rick Ross – both of whom are Excuse My French’s executive producers – Montana can catch his breath.
In an exclusive interview with VH1, the Moroccan-born rapper takes a break from his tough persona to have a light-hearted chat about ladies, his favorite NYC hang-outs, the ad-libs that inspire him, and the wild ride that’s been his hip hop ascent.
In interviews last year, French revealed that in addition to a collaboration with The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye making the Excuse My French final track-listing, he was also working on a track with Kanye West. Songs with Nicki Minaj, Ne-Yo, Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, Drake, Raekwon, Snoop Dogg, his Coke Boy cohorts, and members of MMG and the Bad Boy roster (and more!) made the album, but Yeezy’s verse never did. In the interview clip below, French expounds on the missed opportunity, also noting that a verse from Jay-Z could have materialized had there been more time before the LP’s deadline. Without The Throne, however, French insists his debut is “still a classic.”
Losing his friend and rap mentor Max Biggavel to a 75-year prison sentence has weighed heavily on Montana, but when Excuse My French dropped last Tuesday on Max’s birthday (May 21) and included a surprise phoned-in feature from Harlem’s wave pioneer, both men had something to celebrate. After discussing his rooted aesthetic relationship with graphic artist and video director Eif Rivera – the shooter behind “Freaks” and upcoming Weeknd-featured video, “Gifted” – Montana went on to describe the emotional phone call he shared with big brother Biggavel. “Once in a While,” the album intro they both appear on, is French’s favorite track.
Despite his cartoon-like, woozy presence, French is actually smarter than he looks. Coming off as a charming, just-happy-to-be-here kind of guy with a casual drug habit and a delight for the absurd (remember the bear hat?), his personal and emotional filters are fully intact. Just as you think he’s about to reveal his real problems, he trails off, leaving you with verbal equivalent of an ellipsis.
French hasn’t had time to think about how his perspective has changed as a result of his swift burst into rap stardom. And why would he? Whether it’s via Puffy’s Branding 101 lectures or Ross battling through health issues to make proper use of the MMG momentum, the people French is surrounded by lead by example. Determined to be his own man, however, the iced-out rapper is careful in how he categorizes the two bosses who co-signed him into the mainstream sphere; one minute he’s taking their advice, and the next they’re just his peers.
Already in cahoots with rapper Chinx Drugs and the ink still drying on the contract for newest Coke Boy addition Lil’ Durk, it appears Montana is trying to build an empire and be a mogul in his own right.
“I don’t want to sound like Ross, I don’t want to sound like Puff. I want to make my own music: French Montana,” he says firmly during our interview. Before Excuse My French was finished, the rapper knew he had to serve the streets despite being bogged down on tour. “Puff was telling me… ’don’t drop no mixtape, don’t do nothing before the album,’ and I went and dropped [my mixtape] Mac & Cheese 3. So I didn’t really listen, but that’s my brother. He understands.”
In terms of creative control, French has always embraced formulating his own sonic identity. A departure from more cohesive projects captained by his go-to producer Harry Fraud, Excuse My French openly panders to different geographical appetites and demographics- a decision Montana credits after studying regional rap culture while traveling the country with Drake.
“I got the wave music, I got New York music, I got L.A. music, down south, mid-west… I feel like I made a balanced album.” Selling 56,000 copies in its first week and landing at #4 on Soundscan is a modest debut, but if French can continue clobbering listeners with catchy party records like “Pop That,” “Freaks,” and new goon anthem that’s also his first career solo single, “Ain’t Worried About Nothin’,” the needle could wind-up moving. Either way, let’s just hope he makes it to Yankee Stadium before residents of his borough find out he’s never been to a game there. Not quite the Bronx tale you’d imagine, is it?