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French Montana: ‘Get Hip or Get Left With the Dinosaurs’

The rapper on his new album, why New York is the Mecca of hip-hop, and almost seeing his friend Pop Smoke the night he died
Photograph by Gioncarlo Valentine for Rolling Stone. Fashion Direction by Alex Badia. Market Editor: Luis Campuzano. Fashion Assistant: Kimberly Infante. Sweater by Gabriela Hearst
Photograph by Gioncarlo Valentine

& lsquo;’I was saying that they had amnesia about everything: The Cocaine City DVDs, the Coke Boys era, from Chinx to the Max B collaborations,” French Montana tells me. “I felt like they have had amnesia about my accomplishments.” The rapper spent the past couple of years out of the spotlight, in part to focus on fatherhood, in part to focus on his health. He quit drinking after being hospitalized in 2019 for exhaustion — or, as he put it, “turning up too much.” 

Montana’s new album, They Got Amnesia, plays on the idea that some rap fans sleep on his work. But anyone who remembers, say, 2009’s Coke Wave — his collaborative tape with Max B, an East Coast version of what Thug and Rich Homie Quan are to the South — recognizes French as a highly significant New York figure. If Max was the street legend of the 2000s, Gotham’s crooning and rapping vocalist, French – who was raised in Morocco before moving to New York as a teenager – was its muscle, with a South Bronx-dizzy delivery that would get him signed to Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Records. The Cocaine City DVDs functioned as a documentary for the New York streets, and Montana and Max kept New York afloat when Roc-a-Fella had disbanded and G-Unit had started bickering like the Roy family (with 50 being Logan). Despite a few underwhelming verses and some trend-hopping in the years since, New Yorkers with Yankee hats who thrive off of disgust have not forgotten French Montana. 

They Got Amnesia follows a blueprint French set up during Obama’s second term, when he showed he was one of hip-hop’s premier collaborative artists. Features are prevalent: Lil Durk, Doja Cat, 42 Dugg, and Saweetie make appearances, among many others. As does Pop Smoke, a friend with whom French recorded frequently. (French was even supposed to hang out with Pop Smoke the night before he was killed.) French shows chutzpah in his songwriting, too; he’s motivated, and it’s his best record since 2012’s Mac and Cheese 3 tape. (Not all has been tranquil during French’s mini-hibernation — last year, he and his business partner were sued for allegedly sexually assaulting an intoxicated woman. The case is still pending. When asked for comment, French declined to talk about the lawsuit.) We caught up with French to talk about They Got Amnesia, his friend Pop Smoke, and how the game has changed.

What have you been up to the past few years?
My son is getting older, so I was being a father. I spent time away just to focus on my health, especially my mental health. Sometimes you out here trying to make your money and you forget to rest your body.

You came up in the 2000s, where the mixtapes were actual tapes sold on the street, and the albums were the albums. Those lines have kind of been blurred now. Everything needs to be sold retail-wise. What’s that dynamic like for you as a veteran in the game?
Man, it’s actually something I got used to. Either you get hip to what’s going on or you get left with the dinosaurs. You know what I’m saying? When we first came out, YouTube was a platform, and then WorldStar took over. Then, for me, even when I was a kid, buying cassettes watching that transform to CDs. It’s the same thing. Like CDs to the streaming game now. So you just got to get adapted, mold your own style around what’s current. 

Does that make it easier?
There are definitely highs and the lows with everything. I just feel like adapting from Cocaine City to the music thing. It’s like, you get in, you figure out who is the best, you see what they’re doing, you put your own style. You make it your own. Everybody’s got a chance to make whatever they’re into their own by attaching their style to it. 

Talk to me about seeing New York rappers getting their flowers.
Oh, I love it, man. New York is like Chicago Bulls when Michael Jordan was playing. It’s the Mecca of hip-hop. I feel like, when you make it out of here, it’s just not about you rapping, about you making songs: 80 percent of it is you being who you are. And the culture, to the roots. What was your history like, who you know, who vouched for you? 

Because so many things that go with it. You could be from somewhere else, you don’t have to go through that. It’s like, “Oh, you’ve got a dope song? All right, let’s get it on the radio.” But there are the ups and the downs to that. The ups are, once you learn and pass all the obstacles, you will last for a very long time in the game. That’s what artists like me, like Jadakiss, like Fab, a lot of artists are able to maintain — their star quality for years. That’s just unheard of to come out of nowhere else. 

What’s your favorite memory from doing the Coke Wave tape with Max?
Being in love with music and loving the process. I feel like a lot of people are not in love with the process. They always look at the game, like “Let me get from point A to Z.” Everybody, as soon as you get in the game, you automatically want the Grammys, you automatically want these awards. You want the Number One diamond hit single, you want a platinum album. But a lot of artists don’t enjoy the process and embrace the grind. I feel like I was actually having fun embracing the grind. Even speaking to him now, we’re always reminiscing about those times.

Max has been in prison for more than a decade. Have you spoken to him recently? How is he doing?
Max is doing great. His spirit is on a whole other level. He acts like I am the one locked up. 

Were you aware of the Cocaine City impact when it was happening?
Cocaine City was probably the first thing that showed me how fast records go. It showed me how fast rappers go, so I was able to be a student of the game while gradually, slowly but surely, learning the process of being an artist. Learning the do’s and the does not’s from every artist. Cocaine City was my college.

Do young artists have that education?
I feel like artists have the chance to learn and study the process, and through your growth and your trials, you get to pick. “All right, do I want to be here forever? All right, let me study some greats so I could stay here forever.” I don’t think that people can pick that. You can’t cheat the hustle, the hustle knows exactly what you’re doing. So if you want to be here forever, take the steps.

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What’s your mindset on this record compared to the other ones?
This is like the record I always wanted to make. It felt like I was starting from scratch, but I wasn’t, I was starting from experience. I was talking this morning; there was this artist that drew a painting in 15 minutes, and charged a guy $2 million. And he was like, “Why are you charging me $2 million for this painting?” It was like, “It took me 40 years of my life to be able to do this.” That’s how I feel.

What are you trying to accomplish now?
Reach my peak. Reach my peak. I feel like I wasn’t able to reach my peak, I was distracted. I wasn’t standing on my right foot, I was fumbling too many things in my hands. Worrying about other artists, worrying about this, worrying about that. Just not in the right space in my head.

You have a single with Fivio Foreign on the album, “Panicking.” How did that come about?
One thing about French Montana is, I’ve been testing myself to whatever artists that’s coming up out of New York. Before this, Shmurda. Or there’s Lil Tjay first coming out, there was Pop Smoke when they was first coming out. Whoever was coming out of New York, I’ll always show my support and bring the city together. Just to have these special moments. I’ve been doing that for a very long time.

Do you have any specific Pop Smoke memories?
I was supposed to go see him [the night he was killed] in L.A., and I was in a strip club. He was like, “Yo, come over to the crib.” We was going to go to the crib, but it was already like four in the morning. So I was like, “Yo, let’s go to my house, I got to get some sleep.” So instead of going to Pop Smoke’s crib, I went to my house. It just shows you, man. You got to be careful how you do it. If you’re not controlling your life, anything can happen. Treat every day on that path of how you want everybody to remember you. Don’t waste no time wasting time.

Are you giving advice?
I’m always giving advice. I preach until they don’t want to listen no more. I remember meeting Pop and talking to him, and my man was like, “Man, chill, they don’t listen anymore.” So, I try to give game always.

What does Allah mean to you?
There’s a higher power. So you really have to understand where you’re going and embrace it, and make sure that you and the higher power are on the same path. Some people go off their path with God, and you won’t get as far as you can.

A few years ago you said you might outshine Kendrick if you both headlined a festival. Do you really think you can beat Kendrick?
That was a while ago, man. The internet took it and ran with it, but I wasn’t talking about Kendrick himself. I was merely saying I can go against anyone you put to me. 

How often do you speak to Puff?
All the time. Whenever it is time to work or have some fun, Puff and his energy is always right there.

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