The best part of French Montana’s debut record is whenever anyone but French Montana appears. Montana is the rap game guy from high school who hung out with the cool kids, but no one could figure out why he was so embraced. He wasn’t particularly funny or good-looking or charming, but he went with the flow and got along with everyone, which I suppose is practically the dictionary definition of wavy.
If you heard Excuse My French without context, you’d be left with the same sort of questions. Why was this released on Bad Boy in 2013? Why in an industry filled with hundreds of gifted artists was French Montana, a rabbit-eyed, witless goon crooner in a Beagle Boy body, given a record deal? And why did he take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a record so generic that it should be manufactured alongside knockoff Valium in a sub-continental sweatshop?
French Montana inspires a lot of questions. For one, he is neither from France nor Montana. He’s from the South Bronx, the permanently depressed womb of hip-hop that hasn’t produced a legitimate star since Big Punisher. But Montana’s album bears the hallmarks of everything except the wild style. It’s fundamentally conservative, abandoning the producer responsible for his biggest hits (Harry Fraud), for a slate of anonymous trap beat-makers and Young Chop. It should come with a scratch and sniff cover that smells like bear-head fur hat and Sean John Empress perfume.
Excuse My French embodies every trope you’d expect from 2013. Superfluous ratchet references? Check. Fake Future auto-tune songs? Double Check. The guest list is filled almost entirely by Maybach Music, Cash Money, and Bad Boy artists -- exactly what you’d expect from the executive producer who told you not to worry if he wrote rhymes because he writes checks. Even in 2013, Puffy still holds the ability to sanitize New York street rap stars into making their “If You Think I’m Jiggy.”
The song names seem like they’ve been recycled from a Lonely Island list of discarded parody titles. “Throw It in the Bag” comes a full four years after The-Dream and Fabolous song with the identical title -- not to mention Andy Samberg and company’s “Threw it on the Ground.” Other song titles include “Trap House” (just like the Gucci Mane trilogy), “Paranoid” (like the Kanye West song) “Ain’t Worried About Nuthin” (like the Soulja Boy song) and “Ballin” like every bad rap cliche ever.
But there have been plenty of great rap albums with song titles that never got a second glance. What’s most numbing about Montana’s formal debut is the actualization of his own mantra: he ain’t worried about nothing. No chopper will be un-emptied, no molly water will be left un-sipped. To paraphrase Joan Didion: all measure of cerebral activity is virtually absent. This extends to lyrics, hooks, collaborative choices, and his flow itself. Did you want to hear “Ice Cream” re-made with Method Man and Ghostface replaced by French Montana and Ne-Yo? No, you didn’t.
What’s arguably most damning is that Montana actually has an interesting story to tell. He’s survived being shot in the head. He built a hood DVD empire. His close friend and collaborator Max B, is probably in jail for life. He’s also the first major Arab-American rap star -- who emigrated from Casablanca at age 13 and learned English on the streets of the South Bronx. But all you could gather about Montana from this record is that he loves choppers, “bad hoes,” thugging, and his ad-lib “Haaan,” which sounds like an 87-year old alcoholic gargling Ciroc.
At his best, Montana raps like a man who could still use the latest energy drink. He’s spent most of his career warbling in an understated but bizarrely soothing wine-drunk donkey bray. He accidentally invented the word “Fanute” by eliding almost every syllable in the phrase “from the hoopty to the couple.” He’s never been consistent, but when he connects, the effect can be narcotic.
There are a few moments when the records actually work. Last year’s summer jam, “Pop That” deserves to be as crucial to the evolution of ratchet-dom as the Uncle Luke record that spawned it. “Freaks” deserves a dancehall 21 Gun Salute for pairing Nicki Minaj and a “Murder She Wrote” sample. While “Fuck What Happens Tonight” succeeds in a Frankenstein’s monster way by stitching together Ace Hood, Snoop Dogg, and Scarface on an auto-tuned hook from reggae star, Mavado. Everyone on the track outshines Montana, save for maybe DJ Khaled -- who gets equal billing, presumably for blowing the air horn.
Almost everything is absent from what made French Montana the biggest rapper from the Bronx since Christopher Rios last bit the rotten manzana. Many of Montana’s finest moments have come in collaborations with Waka Flocka and Max B. Flocka is nowhere to be found and Max B only appears on a brief intro inevitably recorded from the pen. Somehow Harry Fraud placed zero beats on Excuse My French after supplying Montana with his two biggest street hits in “New York Minute” and “Shot Caller.” Listening to a French Montana record is like listening to CL Smooth without Pete Rock. It’s the mac without the cheese.
Excuse My French’s failings are a reminder that Montana is most effective in a supporting role. His slurred mumble is best as a complement, not as the center of attention. It’s like getting stranded alone with that same guy from high school and immediately exhausting whatever you have to say to each other in 40 seconds. It is rap created solely through Rolodex and rehash. It is the sound of one wave crashing.