The question with French Montana is—what does his mush-mouthed slurring have to do with his almost inexplicable level of success? Like Rocky Balboa that dumb mook with the stupid voice, the one who seems like he’s been knocked out about twenty minutes before he even steps into the ring? Yeah, he’s “The World Champion.” He’s stepped into the ring of rap with big, bruising sluggers like Gunplay, Pusha T, Jadakiss, and Meek Mill and instead of being turned into a gold-link draped cabbage, has come out holding a big fuck-off gold belt which comes with its own butler and parking garage.
The big difference between Moroccy and Rocky is that Rocky did take a pasting, but he also fought back, usually by using the tried and trusted “punch them in the head forty-six times without them blocking a single punch until your glove explodes” technique that he learned off his opponents punching him in the head forty-six times without him blocking a single punch. When placed in the metaphorical ring with a rapper with more skill and charisma than him, French doesn’t really rise to the occasion—but he still stays on top, making his “Anyone CN CHNNGG!” speech to the adoring crowds.
The primal appeal of the “Rocky” films (for those who aren’t just sniggering at them cos of how shit they are) is the rags-to-riches trajectory of its dumb-but-nice protagonist. If Rocky had been played by Daniel Day Lewis, say, and had been handsome and well-spoken from the off, nobody would have been cheering him on. Drake is basically this, which is why people hate him—he wasn’t to the manor born, but in rap terms near enough, and more importantly is photogenic and has a nice clear voice and on top of everything else is prodigiously talented. When he screams about having the belt, we all think “yeah, so what?” That’s like when Apollo Creed dances about in a big Stars-N-Stripes hat in Moscow and you subliminally can’t wait for Ivan Drago to haymaker him to Hades.
Now, French Montana is by no means talentless. You’d have to be a genuine dimwit to think that a rapper could get as far as he has without being able to sound good on a beat (and pick a good beat too). Even so, you can’t help but think whenever you’re suddenly confronted with the fact that he is one of the most popular rappers in the world, “how the fuck did that happen?”
Well, for one thing he had his own Mickey—Max “Mickey” Biggavellz, the one who took that “worthless bum” Montana into the big leagues by teaching him a couple of his tricks. Like Mickey, Max was a prodigiously talented, slightly scary muthafucka who was put into retirement due to poor business decisions (which in Max’s case meant allegedly murdering someone, although I am very much open to the “he was framed” side of the argument #freemaxb) and whose blunder-lipped protégé went on to fulfill all the competitive/commercial dreams which arguably should have been the Sensei’s. French’s superlative work with Max on the “Coke Wave” mixtapes brought him to many people’s attention and to this day he still does Biggavelz-esque pissed-up hooks (“Staaayy scheeeemminnnnn…niggas trynna get at meeeeeeee”) and uses Harry Fraud/Lana Del Ray sampling wavey beats which Max B would absolutely destroy if his only rap didn’t come through a phone wire.
However, Mickey couldn’t take full credit for Rocky’s wins (he was dead for over half of them, just as Max has been in Sing Sing during Montana’s rise to King status) let’s not forget about all that running up flights of steps, punching cow carcasses and doing agonizing body raises in Arctic barns. Montana has got where he has through sheer hard work (and even harder networking)—releasing his own mixtapes and DVDs, and wearing a tea-towel on his head to save on heating bills. In the modern rap game, the respect accorded to sheer hustle cannot be underestimated. And this perhaps gets to the heart of the “why do so many people like him” matter. The guy who didn’t have much of a voice, didn’t have much in the way of lyrics, didn’t have much in the way of anything, but now flies in private jets and appears on every remix of a big rap hit you can think of, and makes it bigger. He wasn’t put there by somebody else—he put himself there.
One of the skits on Coke Boys 4, which is very much the Rocky 4 of the series, features a parody Italian grease ball mobster talking about how “nobody wants that lyrical shit” anymore. The girls want to hear “Pop That” so they can bend off and get their Fagoolies out. This ain’t pretty. But French, ruthlessly efficient business-rapper that he is, has really understood something crucial here. He knows how to play to the lowest common denominator in every listener—and this is by playing the lowest common denominator himself. Either he’s doing it deliberately, cos that’s what people want, or he just knows that what he happens to do is what people want. Either way he’s laughing. Coke Boys 4 is—and is it despite or because of French’s glaring weaknesses as a rapper?—a thoroughly enjoyable listen as mixtapes go. There are the usual six or seven tracks on it which are destined for the Recycle bin but a high number of keepers too—almost invariably; the “keep” factor is down to two main strengths.
Strength 1: The beats BANG. Strength 2: The hooks are so dumb and simple that you can’t help but sing along to them, and singing dumb hooks along to bangers is basically one of the most enjoyable things to do in the world that doesn’t (ordinarily) involve actively manipulating your genitals. Scratch that, in fact – the only thing more enjoyable to do than this is to sing dumb hooks along to bangers. French has every box ticked in this respect, so much so that within 30 seconds of listening to the “Intro” to Coke Boys 4 I was singing “Coke Boys… Montana…We Up In Here…What They Talkin’ Bout?” as if I was whizzing around Dubai in a Lamborghini instead of traipsing off to work in an insurance company.
Besides, and despite French’s professed disdain for lyrical shit, French has bars: “I’m famous now my signature called an autograph… / See these red diamonds, that’s cold blood” etcetera. He is no slouch, though he sounds like one. Still, his voice isn’t made for delivering subtler lines like this with any authority—on the Jahlil produced Diddy featuring banger “Worst Nightmare” you want Biggie to be accompanying the Puffster, dropping lines over the screeching synth with that booming imperiousness he had. French is no substitute.
This is why the hook up with the UK rappers Konan and Krept for “Waste My Time” (originally a tune by K&K which has been reworked by French, Chinx Drugz and Lil Durk here) makes so much sense. UK road rap is drawn heavily from US rap music (Rick Ross, Jeezy et al), but also from Grime and even genres like Funky, where MCs bars are often something close to football chants: repetitive, catchy, designed to stick in people’s minds like sketch-comedy catchphrases. The type of rap music French Montana makes is something like Grime—a patchwork of catchphrases, slang, hood clichés—and beats that will blow the bloody doors off.
There are ‘better’ boxing films out there than “Rocky 4”. If you want nuance, intelligence, a more realistic (though stylized) representation of life and boxing you should be watching “Raging Bull”. But if you want big dumb fun with a glum faced plumb? “Rocky 4” is that film. And Coke Boys 4, while by no means attaining the sheer aesthetic heights of “Rocky 4,” doe feature a scene stealing turn by a robot (Lil Durk C3PO-Flowing on the immense “Money and Power”) and will make you reject Communism completely, if only for the fear that if there is a revolution, Diddy will probably end up as Supreme Leader and we will all have to pretend we like that rubbish house tune he once did if we don’t want to end up in a Gulag sweatshop making mink coats and being sprayed with freezing water as Diddy strafes us on his polar jet ski. Hail capital!