French Montana On How Friendship + His Roots Influenced His Wavey New Album

French Montana
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Photo Credit: TAMZ

Photography: TAMZ

Styling: Derek Roche + Vaughn Page

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Shot on David Grutman’s SS Groot 

It’s 6 a.m. in Miami, and French Montana is happy. He’s twinning with his longtime friend Drake, wearing identical smiles, outfits and even haircuts. They look like they’ve had the best night ever being really, really wavey. And although the dynamic duo responsible for the “10 Snipe Commandments” bro code only had heart-to-hearts and hookah until the wee hours, secret shenanigans can never be ruled out when it comes to the “Splash Brothers.”

“You don’t meet a lot of real friends in the game, so when you meet somebody where the relationship is real, you need to capture that feeling and keep that relationship as solid as you can because you don’t find a lot of people like that,” he notes. “Out of a 1,000 people, you might meet 10 that are really organic with you and show you genuine love. That’s me and Drake. We had the same mother and father―we are brothers in a past life.”

This dynamic duo has been friends for over a decade (Montana was a Grammy-nominated producer before he became a writer/rapper) and has collaborated four times now, but the collaboration was a result of the friendship, not vice versa. “When we get together, we usually don’t talk about work because we’re friends,” the 34-year-old hip-hop artist maintains. “If he likes something, he’ll tell me. Usually, people are around you to benefit somehow, or take something from you, but I feel like artists need to get away from that and need peace of mind.”

But despite their friends-first relationship, it’s no accident that the first single Montana released from his still-untitled 2019 album was a collaboration with his pal, “No Stylist,” a follow-up to their 2016 track “No Shopping.” Montana’s brother Ayoub declared the track a hit. So French went to his Splash Brother and said, “‘If it’s a hit, put a verse on it.’ So he did.”

And lo and behold, like most things these Midas masters touch, the single went platinum. But regardless of its sales success, collaborating with a close friend is always a win in his book. “If you watch the ‘No Shopping’ video, you can tell that it’s genuine love [between us],” he notes. “It’s not an artist coming in, doing their verse and then leaving.”

French MontanaPhoto Credit: TAMZ

A lifelong friendship is also the reason he cites for jumping on board buddy Wiz Khalifa’s Decent Exposure Tour this summer, a 28-city, 40-day adventure produced by Live Nation that kicked off in Atlanta on July 9 and ends on August 15 in Boise, Idaho. “Wiz was actually one of the first people I met up with [in the industry],” he explains. “I remember when I was coming up, him coming to the studio with Nipsey Hussle and Big Sean—before I even knew who Big Sean was. He was introducing me to everybody. He’s like a wavy baby. When I met him, it was an automatic connection. Our [style]—the music, the sound, the vibe—is all the same. It was a natural fit for us to tour together. We’re on the same wavelength.”

Because the tour lineup also includes pals such as Playboi Carti, Moneybagg Yo, Chevy Woods and DJ Drama agreeing to join Wiz on this multicity musical adventure, it was a no-brainer. “Of course [it’s way more fun to do this with friends],” Montana says. “You don’t want to be around fake people, right? Ain’t nothing as good as when you look to your left and you look to your right and see people you really love. There’s nothing better than that in this fake-ass industry.”

He cites the artificial nature of the music industry many times, but it’s a testament to how genuine a person he is that he seems to have more close friends than most: Not only is he at Diddy’s annual Fourth of July white party as we speak, but he’s collaborated on an insane amount of tracks with some of the most equally successful artists out there, including Jay-Z, Drake, Nas, Rick Ross, Kanye West, Jennifer Lopez, Miley Cyrus, Pharrell Williams, Mac Miller and more. He radiates enthusiasm, kindness and personality.

“Most of the people that are around me and that I keep closest are people that I’ve known forever and have real love for,” he notes. “If you know somebody for 10 years and call them a friend, then you mean it unless you’re a real opportunist who has no f***ing soul; real recognizes real. Sometimes you’ll be in the studio with an artist, and you really don’t like each other, so you’re faking the songs just to make music. In order to stay successful in this business, you need to be around people who are your real friends, and not just business associates. There comes a time when you know who’s who and what’s what. You’ve got to pick those people like a needle in a haystack.”

Friendship is a theme that not only dominates his life but is also central to his music—in particular, his upcoming album, which follows hot on the heels of Coke Wave 4, the fourth installment of his Coke Wave series collaboration with Max B, which started in 2009. In fact, his most personal track—whose title he can’t yet divulge—is an ode to friendship, a tribute to his three best friends: Chinx, a friend and artist under Montana’s own Coke Boy Records, who was killed in a 2015 shooting; Penthouse, who’s serving 30 years in prison; and Max B, who’s in for 75 (though Montana has been advocating for his friend’s early release alongside Kim Kardashian). “I got real emotional putting this song together,” he admits. “I just remember the days when we were all going to the studio together; it took me back to the days when we started, when we were all young up-and-coming artists, grinding, going through the struggle.”

He recalls that Chinx used to constantly rap about his best friend, Stack Bundles, when he was shot and killed in 2007. Tragically, and with no small amount of poetic justice, Montana is now doing the same for his friend, allowing Chinx to live on through these lyrics. “When Chinx passed away, it was just crazy,” he says quietly, noting that this track—and the place he went to in order to create it—transported him to a different time and place, when his friend was still alive, and things were simple. “Back in those days, we had a lot of fun because we loved doing what we do, and doing it from the heart… and now I’m here all by myself, and nothing is the same.”

French Montana
JACKET & PANTS: Dolce & Gabbana
T-SHIRT: Ralph Lauren Purple Label S
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But because of his natural optimism and drive, he has to be able to honor the past, but still leave it there: There is only one direction he can go, and that’s forward. His new album is chock-full of earwigs that blend the past, present and future together lyrically. In addition to collaborations with Drake, as well as Blueface and Lil Tjay (“Slide,” which samples Snoop Dogg’s “Serial Killa”), Max B and Chinx (posthumously), there is his current single, “Wiggle It,” a summer-friendly anthem featuring Miami rap duo City Girls. Bringing it back to that ever-present “F” word once again (“F” is for “friendship,” naturally,) Montana says he enjoys working with the group because they remind him of himself and Max B, being that one of the group’s two members—also both best friends—JT, is locked up, while the other, Yung Miami, continues to represent.

Essentially, while still providing the signature sound that fans have known and loved since his first release, 2013’s Excuse My French, this album—his first since 2017’s Jungle Rules—is more personal and more mature, which makes this his most important record to date. “I’m constantly evolving. I feel like this is my best album yet,” he says. “I built a state-of-the-art studio in my house, and the inspirations were constantly flowing out of me. Being the man that I am, overcoming everything I did to get to where I am, it’s all in my music, in my story.” 

The album is also influenced in equal parts by his African roots and upbringing in the Bronx. Montana—born Karim Kharbouch—emigrated from his home of Casablanca, Morocco, to the United States with his parents and two siblings when he was 13. When he arrived in the South Bronx, he only spoke his native languages of Arabic and French.

How a non-English-speaking kid from Morocco who dropped out of high school had to become the sole breadwinner of his family in his teens and also survived a gunshot wound to the head became the top-selling artist that he is today is a testament to the power of French Montana. He’ll admit how difficult the road to fame has been, in particular doing so as an African immigrant—but calls the hardships, in typical Montana fashion, a “beautiful struggle” that has not only impacted who he’s become as a person, but also the music he makes.

“I’m just so happy to be the biggest artist to come out of North Africa, as of now… until somebody else does it,” he maintains, adding, “Coming from there, it’s a whole different world that people don’t even see. To make it out of there to come [to America] and make it out here, it’s like going through two different jungles―the movie Gladiator, that’s what it’s like. Everything I make is my experience, my lifestyle, everything I stand for, and I want to do the same for people with the same struggle from other countries, that are trying to make it but have no hope. ”

French Montana
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He tries to bring his upbringing and culture into everything that he does, whether it’s regularly performing in North Africa—including his upcoming October show in Cairo—shooting his “Famous” music video in Morocco’s famed blue city of Chefchaouen or introducing fellow African acts into the American mainstream, like he did with Uganda’s Triplets Ghetto Kids. He flew 30 hours to Uganda where he hired the Kids’ dance troupe (which he found while surfing the web in search of African music) to perform on the Kampala-shot music video for “Unforgettable,” his single with Swae Lee, and also brought them to the States to perform with him on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

Simply put, the African Kids gave French a new sense of life. He is now committed to funding their education, partnering with Global Citizen on a health advocacy campaign and working with the Mama Hope Foundation to build a hospital for neonatal care in Uganda. Because of his work in Uganda, he was honored with the Global Citizen Ambassador title in 2018, which is no small deal—it was the first time in history that the honor had been bestowed on a rapper. But in addition to doing something so important philanthropically, at his heart, he just wanted to give the kids a taste of what American life is like—which is why he took them to Universal Studios for their first roller-coaster ride. “There’s no light coming from a black hole, especially coming from Africa,” he says. “That’s why it feels so good to bring [the Triplets Ghetto Kids] here. It was their first time on a [ride], and they were screaming as if they had seen Jesus. That feeling right there is priceless, more than any reward. That’s the Grammy; that’s the Oscar. If I can use my platform to do more stuff like that for the people where I came from—my people—I’d be more than happy. At the end of the day, you’re just another rapper with a mic if you can’t use your platform to help your people. That’s what separates kings and soldiers.”

And while Montana is totally matter-of-fact about his own charitable commitments—they’re a must, not a maybe—he’s equally dismissive of the artists who don’t use their names for a greater good. “I just feel like a lot of rappers [need to be told] ‘You’re not going to die with all that money. When you go in that coffin, you’re going naked,’” he says. “They need to know that the more you do for others, the better chance you have of getting close to that man upstairs.” He cites The Great Gatsby here, comparing young, mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby to his peers. “[Gatsby] has the biggest parties in the world and hundreds of millions of people coming to them, but when he dies, he dies by himself. Why’s that? He wasn’t helping people. People were coming over to party with him, but he wasn’t doing anything to help anyone. That’s how a lot of these rappers I see are living their lives, but [they need to know that] people come to your funeral for what you did for them—not what you did for yourself. Giving back is very necessary!” he exclaims passionately. “God blesses you to bless the people. The moment you stop doing that, He takes everything back. It’s almost like He tests you. For me, the more I give, the more I got.”

And he’s got a lot. Though his private jet, endless amounts of bling, a pet monkey (he calls Julius Caesar his “son” and “my shorty”), his Calabasas, Calif., mansion (which he purchased from Selena Gomez for $4.5 million) and his Tibetan Mastiff, Champ—the world’s most expensive dog, which can sell for upwards of $2 million—are just a few of the luxuries prominently displayed on his Instagram page, Montana is surprisingly bashful about discussing his wealth.

“Luxury is something that [doesn’t] matter once you have it. You set yourself goals just to stay busy and do something with your time, and they say that a man with no bills has nothing. You’ve always got to be out there grinding and have something to show for it, the work, and how big your ego is,” he admits. “It’s almost like getting an award―that’s what all of these material things are. I buy things just to feel like I accomplished something.”

French Montana
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More importantly, he wants to be recognized for how hard he’s toiled to earn the extravagant things he owns. “I work hard, but a lot of people don’t see the hard work—they only see [my luxury lifestyle],” he notes. “Sometimes, I go to the studio from 8 at night all the way until 4 in the morning, sleep for two hours and go to meetings at 8 a.m. It’s a lot of hard work.”

But that’s French, a man who works hard and plays hard in equal parts, whose extravagant lifestyle and A-list celebrity friends (a reminder: He is at Diddy’s house as we’re speaking) only hint at the person he really is; a man he himself describes as “generous, authentic, observant and wiser than [I] lead people to believe.” He’s like a one-man reality show—or one man that should have a reality show, as it were. Montana likes this. “I am a reality show!” he laughs. “It’s all around me.”

Speaking of reality shows, we couldn’t resist—as so many before us—asking about his relationship with Keeping Up with the Kardashians star Khloé Kardashian, whom he dated for just under a year back in 2014. He recently celebrated her older sister Kourtney’s birthday (with Khloé barely visible in the background), which he documented on the ‘gram, leading us to wonder how close he still is with the family.

“Me and Khloé are always going to be friends, and the family still remains close,” he says, noting, “I feel like we had a real dope relationship―there was no bad blood, nobody did something to somebody that we couldn’t come back from. The love was real. When the love was like that, it’s always going to be like that. Friendship after a relationship is something that’s real hard to do, and I’m glad we’ve been able to do it.”

And that is French Montana in a nutshell. He’s a guy who values personal relationships above all else, who will do anything for his friends, and who doesn’t feel ashamed about playing hard―if he’s going to make a splash at 6 a.m., so what? He’s earned it. “Happiness [is the most important thing in life],” he declares. “So as long as I’m happy and I try my best, I’m cool.”