French Montana's debut album Excuse My French arrived earlier this week. Like many rappers who blew up in the past 10 years, his hustle was built underground and off the books. Before a street rapper gets a "debut" record in 2013, he's likely got a career's worth of recordings and releases already out. In order to become a grassroots success story, years of free music is a part of the equation these days.
French is no exception. What follows is a rough guide to French Montana's mixtape discography, highlighting some of the tapes that built his reputation. The buzz from these releases created such demand that he was in a bidding war between MMG, G.O.O.D. Music, and, of course, his eventual patron, Bad Boy Records.
Of course, in French's case, it wasn't just mixtapes that tell the story of his arrival. Throughout the 2000s, a bustling street DVD scene helped give rise to a number of artists, and French's Cocaine City series was one of the most acclaimed. So this is only a partial look at his rise, a glance at his music and how it developed. So look no further, this is A Guide to French Montana's Mixtapes...
Written by David Drake (@somanyshrimp)
French Revolution (2007)
French had been recording music prior to 2007's French Revolution, many of which were collected on 2007's Cocaine City Vol 5: The Best of French. His street DVD series, Cocaine City, had created an audience for his rap career. So it comes as no surprise that on his first major mixtape, French's nonchalant slurred rap style was already pretty well developed.
Musically, the tape is less interesting than many of his later recordings; he benefited from collaborations with artists who knew how to match his style, like Max B or Harry Fraud, neither of whom appear on this tape. Instead we get collabs like Hot Rod, Uncle Murda, Jae Millz, Maino, and Bathgate. For the most part, the overall sound is somewhat more generic mid-2000s NYC street rap, rather than the more distinct focus he'd develop on later releases.
Strangely, the version of this release on iTunes drops "Hello Baby," a song where the rapper calls the Coke Boys the '07 Sugar Hill and disses his future boss, saying "I don't dance around like Puffy Combs," over UGK's "One Day" instrumental. But you can tell that his lyrical style was already fully realized: "Ghost Dog, roof full of pigeons," a forefather of his "Stay Schemin'" verse, shows up here as well.
Live from Africa (2008)
French's Live from Africa had some indisputable joints; "Waavvy" with Max B and the anthemic "Money Money Money" were standouts. "On Some Mobb Shit!!" was a display of French's '90s rap infatuation, which would pop up throughout his mixtape career. On the whole, though, the tape didn't quite cohere into much more than that. While French would have bars worth hearing scattered throughout, it wasn't enough to be one of his more memorable projects. The Nina Simone introduction was pretty cold, though.
Coke Wave (2008)
French's biggest power move had to be his strategic alignment with Max B. After Max's relationship with Jim Jones became acrimonious, Max grabbed French as a partner in crime and began releasing a stretch of incredible mixtapes. Perhaps none was as fully-realized as 2008's Coke Wave. The tape is largely defined by Max's personality, musical tastes, and abilities, while French is very much in his shadow. But one can easily see how Max had created a formula (the wave, if you will) for French's own musical approach going forward.
New tracks, like the grunge-y helium anthem "Stake Sause," rubbed up against remixes. As 50 Cent had done, Max used his own melodic gifts to create new versions of classic instrumentals, but filtered through his own gritty performance style.
In an innovative move, he adapted West Coast and non-hip-hop instrumentals and molded them for his own purposes. 2Pac's "Can't C Me" became "Smoking," Marvin Gaye's "I Want You" became "I Warned You," and so on. But one of French's best moments was his hook for "NY" with Dame Grease, which hilariously interpolated Sting's "Englishman In New York" and filtered it through a hazy cloud of Newport smoke.
Black Friday (2009)
2009 was the year French stepped up his solo mixtape game. The rapper linked up with Akon's Konvict Muzik label (although he would later claim he'd never totally been signed). Perhaps it was his affiliation with Akon, or maybe it was the artistic impact of Max B, but this was a step up from French's previous solo releases.
French's monotone also definitely gained direction from beats by Dame Grease, whose gritty melodic gifts had given Max a perfectly complementary framework. Now French too received the dynamic canvas he needed on songs like "Take It Over." The delicate, pretty production on songs like "The New Wave" and "Henny & My 44" were an energizing contrast with the street-oriented thuggishness that was Max and French's stock in trade.
Mac Wit Da Cheese (2009)
Mac Wit Da Cheese introduced one of French's biggest songs, "New York Minute," which cemented the potential of his future with Harry Fraud. Fraud's sample sources tended to be, to say the least, unconventional. He opted for the cheesiest parts of '80s pop hits, sinking his teeth into the synthesizers and saxophones that previous generations might have avoided—at least, when he wasn't going directly for the exact same samples that had been used previously as an intentional reference.
In this case, he built upon a Don Henley sample and transformed the lite-rock staple into a signature song for French with a noteworthy verse from Jadakiss. (Note that this sample was also used similarly by Byrd Gang a year earlier—although Fraud's beat for French is arguably superior.) Also on this tape were Beanie Sigel and Max B-featuring posse cut "Goon Music," and his reversion of Pac's "Death Around the Corner" with Max. Overall, this was a highlight from French's 2009 output and spawned two sequels.
The Laundry Man 1 (2009)
2009 was Max's year—in fact, his last one as a free man—but French was establishing himself as an artist in his own right. Max's influence seemed to color in French's beat selection. Tracks like "Friends" with Max B, the strange g-funk reinterpretation "Find Me a Freak" with Paul Wall, and the dusty "Why So Serious?" were career standouts.
There was some overlap with Coke Wave—think of this as the French-heavy complement—but some of new tracks found French shaking the generic tendencies of some of his earlier efforts. "City of Dreams," the mixtape closer, found the rapper collaborating with now-unfriendly Philly artists Ar-Ab (who threatens to "make your insides show like an ultrasound") and Cassidy.
The Laundry Man 2 (2009)
Much like the first edition, The Laundry Man 2 was a hodgepodge of Max B collaborations, Akon hooks, and the occasional street rap guest like Jae Millz or Beanie Sigel. Most interesting, of course, was Harry Fraud collaboration "We Playin In The Wind," which would turn up on later tapes as well. The song was the first since "New York Minute" that suggested Fraud and French were a particularly potent combo. Dame Grease's "Stuck in the Middle" beat is also one of the more uniquely subtle gems in that producer's catalog.
Also notable for its reappearance is a highlight from French Revolution, "Never Gettin' Up," a thematically-dark track that uses the same sample as Big L's "Flamboyant."
Mac & Cheese 2 (2010)
Mac & Cheese 2 was not as consistent or well-balanced as its predecessor, but it did have the slick, cosmopolitan New York sound that had become French and Harry Fraud's calling card. One standout was the evocative production behind Fraud's gauzily transcendent "Day Dreamin'." Other highlights included French's collaboration with Curren$y, "So High," which sampled Michael Franks' unlikely but beautiful "Lotus Blossom," and the lethargically exotic "Money Money Money."
One song that really pointed to French's developments as an overall artist, though, was Bun B collaboration "Bad Habits." The song was one of French's most melodic and memorable choruses, the rapper's insouciant charm a sign of his growing musical vision.
Coke Boys (2010)
The first Coke Boys release was a major milestone for French, and arguably the best record of the rapper's mixtape run. It incorporated a diverse array of sounds, including the suddenly-hot Lex Luger style emanating from Atlanta clubs, throwback tracks given a modern sheen, and the established chemistry of his collaborations with Harry Fraud. Overall, it was a perfectly-balanced tape.
"Choppa Down" with Waka Flocka became the rapper's first major club hit in the South, and was a success in large part due to French's hook, which adapted surprisingly well to the more sparse, car-and-club-oriented sounds hot in Atlanta. Even when French made concessions to the sonic template of other cities on this record, it all seemed of-a-piece, which wouldn't always be the case going forward.
On opener "Storm is Coming," French really hits on the motivation that was now driving his most focused effort, "They gave my nigga Max like 70 plus," a reference to Max's prison sentence. The second half of the tape is possibly its strongest, from Harry Fraud collaboration "Crack the Top," another melodic, grungy sing-song anthem, to Fat Joe feature "We Run NY," which reinvented KRS-One's "Sound of da Police" without losing its rugged spirit or being overly retro, incorporating New York history for a new era—something many big apple rappers still struggle with.
Perhaps one of the strongest cuts is Three 6 Mafia-accompanying closer "Money Weed Blow," which features a ruthlessly brutal French verse, "Got me on my south shit, pills with the lean/Glock ten shots, inf with the beam/Purple lambo, smoking the rambo/Take my chances, life's a gamble."
Casino Life: Mr. 16 (2011)
The first follow-up to French's groundbreaking Coke Boys tape, Casino Life was initially received as a disappointment, and it's difficult to argue that it wasn't. What had been a well-rounded balance between the poles of Harry Fraud-esque NY melodies and rugged Luger-style club production approached self-parody. Like a Minaj record that alternates between "Starships"-style club songs and rap songs, Casino Life felt like two albums mashed together. In this case, neither were very interesting.
But there were a few great, noteworthy exceptions. Of course, "Shot Caller" was French's major breakthrough single, and yet another '90s New York rap callback from the rapper (it referenced the same Thomas Bell Orchestra sample as Lords of the Underground's "Funky Child"). Perhaps most fascinating was the Harry Fraud-produced "I Think I Luv Her," which sounds like Harry Fraud doing Zaytoven and is somehow eerily pretty.
Finally, the outro track is a densely written and surprisingly moving soundtrack: "Fresh up out the corners and the Section 8/Now I'm sitting at the Yankee game, Section 8/Nigga toast to life, fuck all that open mic/Driving in the third lane, life was a roll of dice."
Coke Boys 2 (2011)
Coke Boys 2 was the moment when Harry Fraud emerged as one of the most distinctive producers in hip-hop, helping to completely divorce French's sound from influences like Luger and Max B alike. For Harry Fraud fans, this is the ultimate French Montana record. It's not his most well-balanced, but it definitely features Fraud's most unusual sample sources, heavy on rock guitars and textures. Essentially, this is Harry Fraud in all his glory.
With the exception of an ill-considered Soulja Boy collab, and give or take a cover of Nonchalant's "5 O'Clock" or Smif-N-Wessun, Fraud's '70s-'80s guitars, harmonicas and synthesizers dominate. It's a little one-note as a result—not as dynamic as the first Coke Boys tape, and if you aren't ready to hear French sound like the fifth member of CSNY it might not be up your alley. It's hard to say, however, that this isn't one of the more distinctive Montana records.
Cocaine Mafia (With Juicy J & Project Pat) (2011)
This is possibly one of the least-essential releases in the French Montana catalog. With some of the more generic Juicy J records of the period, the record's minor bright lights were "You Need Haters," which sampled Katt Williams for the intro and had a reasonably catchy beat, "I'm Guttah Bra"'s horror-movie production and hook, and (especially) "Do It," another Harry Fraud record that stood head-and-shoulders above everything else on the album with its open '80s video game-pop sound. The other worthwhile tracks pre-dated the tape's release ("Money Weed Blow" and "Choppa Choppa Down").
Lock Out (With Waka Flocka Flame) (2011)
Much like Casino Life, this at first seemed like too much of a compromise to the Brick Squad/Luger sound, which was everywhere at the time. Looking back, though, it was actually a pretty strong tape. French seems as comfortable over these tracks as he does over Fraud beats.
Consider this the perfect accompaniment to Coke Boys 2's Fraud-heavy production. Tracks like the aggro "Top Back" slotted in well with some of the better Brick Squad releases dropping around this time. Plus, you get to hear Waka and French go in over a classic Mobb Deep instrumental ("Hell on Earth") on "We Mobb."
Mac & Cheese 3
This, of course, was French's big record after joining up with Diddy and Bad Boy. As a result, it loses some of the unique aesthetic choices French had cultivated with Harry Fraud and the Coke Boys. Fraud did place four beats (including the intro). One flipped the same sample as Jay-Z's "D'Evils," while "Triple Double" used the same Isley Brothers sample as "Today was a Good Day" by Cube, continuing the duo's reign of '90s fetishism.
Young Chop, meanwhile, had four tracks. The production lineup was rounded out by names like Boi-1da, DJ Mustard, and Swizz Beats. Chinx Drugz had two guest spots, but the lineup was heavy on big-name guests like Mac Miller and J. Cole. Tracks like "Ocho Cinco" became hits in a Rick Ross Banger(TM) vein, while "Devil Want My Soul" seemed clearly indebted to Chief Keef's "Love Sosa." This is perhaps French's most expensively-produced, trend-hungry record to date, and his rap style on it was more "hammering mantras" than "bars" per se, with a few exceptions.
Coke Boys 3 (2012)
While French's Mac & Cheese 3 felt like something of a compromise to rap radio, Coke Boys 3 was a full realization of French's wheelhouse sound. Although many of the guests were high-profile—Mac Miller and Wale are on two of the record's best songs—the overall sound was consistent without bending to contemporary trends. Even when incorporating the '90s hip-hop obsession, as on the "C.R.E.A.M."-reminiscent "Everywhere We Go," it is subsumed into a more contemporary style. The other Coke Boys—particularly Chinx Drugz—also throw strong verses into the mix.
Chinx's verse on "Headquarter" is enough to have rap fans checking his solo material: "In life there's six degrees of separation, fear leads to hesitation/Rose from the project gutters, boy that's elevation." The record's dreamlike "Cool Whip" is a high point, and closer "Tap That" has a jazzy New York cosmopolitanism that best epitomizes what French Montana can do so well. Naturally, this was a familiar loop.