The Bridge Of New York Rap

Film

A journalist is often waiting indeterminately for an interviewee to come on a Zoom call or enter a label office; you’re rarely in their living room waiting for them to come out of their bedroom. But here I am in French Montana’s Manhattan apartment after his assistant Kam invites me in and informs me he’ll be out shortly to talk about his new mixtape, Mac & Cheese 5.  

The wait gives me time to ogle the view from his living room window; I won’t blow up his spot, but it’s replete with a beautiful visage of a bridge and a river that’s shimmering on a sunny February day. It looks like a live-action screensaver. After a 10-minute or so wait, the sound of slippers scraping the floor breaks the quiet, never sounding more ominous to me than when French walks down his hallway and turns the corner into the living room. Ever stylish, he’s wearing a colorful PJ set (?) and a pink durag. 

We dap, and he tells me he’s feeling great. “New York City!” he beams about the city that extracts emotion on name alone. He’s somebody with a fascinating grasp of the myriad experiences the Big Apple offers. French arrived in the Bronx as a Moroccan immigrant in 1996, took a wayward turn to the streets after VISA issues fizzled his basketball dreams, curated the infancy of digital rap media via his Cocaine City DVD, and now he’s two decades in on a rap career that afforded him the stature to invite Kim Kardashian over for Hidden Hills birthday parties. The 39-year-old has lived many lives, and he tells me he’s eying more big pivots. 

After telling me about someone giving him a zebra for his last birthday and Swizz Beatz giving him a camel in 2022 — both of which were returned, he tells me, “I’m going to find a place to build a little ranch with animals. I feel like there’s a certain energy you get from animals that you don’t get nowhere else.” Lounging back into his black sectional, he notes, “I feel like I work hard enough that I just want to switch it up [and be] somewhere where I could be at peace. I want somewhere by the beach though, where we all cut off [from the public]. I might have a tiger there or something that [could] tear somebody up.” He adds, “I would love to enjoy that for at least 10 years of my life. Just being around more animals and good people.”  Though he’s dreaming of sandier pastures, that doesn’t mean he’s leaving music behind to be Dr. Dolittle. 

He cites artists like Jay-Z, Nas, and Snoop Dogg as examples of rap attrition that he opts to follow. “One of the biggest inspirations to me is LL Cool J being in the game for forty years. I feel like we’re the new rock stars,” he says. “Now we can actually see somebody fifty-five years old going in the booth and there’s still love.” French feels like he’s poised to emulate their longevity, even if he’s become one of the rap game’s more polarizing artists. While some attribute his rap attrition to mastering a signature sound of charisma and catchy adlibs over impeccably-picked beats, others feels he’s only staying afloat because of features. In 2020, when he claimed that he could go “hit for hit” with Kendrick Lamar on Verzuz, he opened himself up to widespread ridicule. 

But maybe French has a right to feel himself; he’s the highest-streaming African-born artist ever with 40+ billion streams, currently has 18 tracks on the Billboard Hot 100, and has an indelible place in the late 2000s-early 2010s mixtape scene. He was good for a turnup banger when so many of New York’s most respected lyricists hadn’t gotten the memo that the rubric for mass appeal had changed. It would be easy for him to ignore the ridicule and keep laughing to the bank, but he confronted the criticism on “Dirty Bronx Intro,” a lead single from the album where he borrowed from DMX’s Damien and Biggie’s “Gimme The Loot” format by rapping with a high-pitched alter-ego meant to represent an antagonistic fan. 

“Yeah you sold 100 million, but they all features,” French snipes with a snarl, impersonating his critics. “Never that, most of my plaques, I’m the feature. Niggas barely go gold, I had to dominate,” actual French retorts. Nowadays, even a terminally offline artist like Andre 3000 can’t remain oblivious to the rap discourse; every rapper knows the prevailing talking points about them. And French, who stirred controversy in 2017 for calling a detractor a “musty crusty dusty rusty ass hoe” with “nappy ass poetic justice braids,” has lashed out at the sentiment in problematic ways. “Dirty Bronx Intro” was a more constructive approach to the criticism. He tells me he crafted the song to give his fans some ammo in their rap debates — which is why he filmed the video in a barbershop, hip-hop heads’ most hallowed debate hall. 

“It’s almost like giving the people that don’t watch interviews an interview in my music,” he surmises. “There’s people that might not watch me when I do interviews. If you’re a fan of mine that’s always defending me, here’s something to stand on.” When I ask him how he feels about the denigration, he tells me “Everybody need to get fueled by something. If everything is always positive, there’s no fuel.” 

In For Khadija, an autobiography of his and his mother’s NYC journey which will be on Paramount Plus later this year, French details how external negativity inspired his solo career. When his close friend and partner-in-rhyme Max B was sentenced to 75 years for murder, hip-hop consumers doubted his ability to stay relevant by himself. But instead of fading away, he got with producer Harry Fraud, founded the Coke Boys, and got to work. Eventually, the buzz of singles like “Choppa Choppa Down” and “Shot Caller” had him courted by GOOD Music, Roc Nation, Bad Boy, and MMG, and he signed a joint deal with the latter two in 2012. Like his Bronx brethren Fat Joe, his work ethic (he has over 24 mixtapes) and knack for the right single have helped him persist through the years, giving him an interesting place in the lineage of New York rap. 

 “I feel like I’m the bridge,” he says. “Between the OGs [like] Puff, Jay-Z, Nas, and all of them down to the DThangs and the Fivios, to Ice Spices and whoever in the city coming up. I feel like I’m right in the middle. I could jump here. I could jump there.”

French’s apartment looks like a mesh of a millionaire rapper and a bachelor pad. His living room looks like something out of Elle Decor, with a plush sectional couch and a colorful carpet sprawled across the living room floor. His Excuse My French plaque hangs on a wall near the window. Amid the luxury, he has a Demolition Man pinball game, a large pool table, and a Tony The Tiger toy standing in a corner. Next to the pool table is a whiteboard featuring a handwritten tracklist called “Mac & Cheese 5 brainstorming.” I imagine at some point the board was chaotic, as the constantly creative artist culled through songs for the project. But the board was neatly organized — it was go time. The decision-making process was simple for French this time around. Citing “platinum in the streets” songs like “I’m On It” with Wiz Khalifa, Nipsey Hussle, Big Sean, and “Devil Want My Soul,” he tells me he knows exactly what he likes to offer with the Mac & Cheese series. 

“I’m not chasing a perfect eight with a pop hook,” he says. “If you don’t feel that turbulence in your soul when you hear it, I ain’t doing my job.” French says the album is a result of a “something for everybody” mindset. Perhaps that’s why on streaming the album has a standard 21-track version, an acapella version, slowed down and sped-up versions, instrumental versions, as well as one categorized as “versions” with all 126 songs. But beyond the DSP deluge, there’s a wide variety of soundscapes on the album: “Stand United” with Kanye and Saint JHN evokes the old Kanye with a looping vocal sample and break drums, “Too Fun” with Brooklyn group 41 explores the Jersey Club drill wave, “Other Side” is an ode to “princess treatment,” and Millionaire Row” with Rick Ross and Meek Mill transports listeners back to MMG’s early-2000s peak.

French says he aims to have “five tracks for everybody” on the project, and the methodology is based on his vast network. “When I’m around D Thang and them I can’t play him the Kanye shit sometime, I got to play him the 41 shit so they start dancing,” he says. “There’s different characters that be around me when I do my albums.“ The “characters” French refers to just so happen to be some of music’s defining figures over the turn of the century. He tells me about a random studio session of his that The Weeknd invaded:

“Me and him got three, four songs [but] I never seen him recording in front of me,” he prefaces. “Oe day I’m in the studio. Quavo was in there. And [Weeknd] came in [and asked] ‘French, what you working on?’ I had a beat playing. He went inside the booth and did [a] whole record. I’m keeping it real, I didn’t know his voice sounded that good. Everybody got tricks. But in that movement I said, ‘This guy’s the truth.’” He adds, “When you deal with people you would think it’s hard to get to them [but] they really just waiting for the right moment to come and see you.”

French says the production on Mac & Cheese 5 is a result of him collecting sample sources all over the world, including crate-digging overseas. “I done stopped my massage before, grabbed my phone, turned my Shazam on just to get that sound,” he says. “[It’ll] be the weirdest faces. The girl’s like, ‘What are you doing?’” 

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And French says the soundscaping doesn’t stop at that point: “A lot of people don’t know that I’m behind the production. It doesn’t matter what producers I have in there. They’re more likely to put on drums, no disrespect to nobody art and what they bring to the table. I chase a certain sound and I deliver it to the producer. I be like, ‘Hey, I want you to put the drums here, do this, do that.’”

French says he’ll be applying that process to Casino Life 3, a project he’s already begun working on, including an Intro featuring Nipsey Hussle. He’ll also be releasing the soundtrack to For Khadija later this year, which will include “Big Pun” with Drake (an executive producer of the documentary). But until then, French is letting his fans eat off a hearty helping of Mac & Cheese

Read original source here.

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