Even among rappers, French Montana's love of money runs deep. Here's a short list of things that come before his bank balance: his family (both parents, now separated, and two younger brothers) and his friend the rapper Max B, who was incarcerated in 2009 for conspiracy to commit murder. But spend any amount of time with the 28-year-old Moroccan-born, Bronx-raised MC, whose debut album, "Excuse My French," is due today May 21 on Bad Boy/Interscope, and conversation quickly veers to a different subject. He talks about his cash with a relish that would make Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein blush.
"In school, my favorite subject was math," Montana offers on a tour bus in Texas, fresh from a headlining spot at Fader Fort during South by Southwest. "That's where I learned to count money."
Born Karim Kharbouch in Rabat, Morocco, Montana has gone from hip-hop outsider to one of the genre's most bankable hitmakers. He's known for massive-sounding, boisterous coke rap and trap music-the kinds of songs built for blaring out of car windows during the more pleasant months. Even without a major-label album to his name, the string of immediately recognizable singles that Montana has either authored or appeared on would make many more-established rappers envious.
First came the 2011 breakthrough single, "Shot Caller," on which a wheezing trumpet conjures a scene from the Al Pacino film that gave Montana his surname. Then in 2012, the ubiquitous "Stay Schemin'" with Rick Ross followed, introducing the world to the viral verb "fanute" (Urban Dictionary: "to swap, to go from ashy to classy, to flip"), which was derived from a mishearing of Montana's lyric "From the hoopty coupe." His biggest hit, though, arrived later that year-the thunderous, 2 Live Crew-sampling strip club anthem "Pop That," which featured guest turns from Ross, Lil Wayne, Drake and 2 Chainz and hit No. 2 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
"A lot of people think, 'Oh, he just caught a hit,'" Montana says of the reaction to his success. "But they don't see all the mixtapes, DVDs and all the groundwork that we've been putting in for years. My album is 10 years in the making."
In 2003, Montana was a little-known local rapper who went simply by "Frenchy" or "Young French"-monikers derived from his homeland's 20th-century colonizers. Videos of a scrawnier, almost hyperactive Montana participating in underground rap battles can still be found online. As a child, his twin loves were soccer and hip-hop, and when he arrived in the United States in 1996 thanks to his father's work visa, he fixated on 2Pac's "All Eyez on Me," which had been released the same year.
Without the money to pay for college, he dropped out of high school (Theodore Roosevelt in the Bronx, which was later shuttered due to poor retention rates) and dove headfirst into a rap career. In the days before YouTube or Facebook, he started the underground DVD series "Cocaine City," in which he interviewed other rappers and filmed them freestyling in alternately gritty and exotic locations around New York. Most of the show's early installments feature segments with Montana himself taking a turn at the mic.
"I was trying to find a platform," he says of the DVDs. "It was a way for me to make money and promote myself at the same time."
It was a slow grind, but eventually the right people began to take notice. Between 2009 and 2011, Montana was variously associated with Grammy Award-nominated singer Akon's Konvict label and rapper Gucci Mane's 1017 Brick Squad crew. While talks with both camps never ended with his signature on a dotted line, Montana displayed a rare knack for cultivating industry relationships and building alliances. He released joint mixtapes with Max B out of Harlem and Juicy J of Memphis, adopting a facile, plain-spoken persona and vaguely Southern cadence that translated equally well in disparate environments.
By the time of "Shot Caller" in 2011, the good will that Montana had accrued from years of percolating in the underground paid off. The track led to a rare bidding war waged by virtually every important hip-hop label, with Montana eventually signing with Sean "Diddy" Combs' retooled Bad Boy Records. In keeping with Montana's history of reaching across the aisle, however, "Excuse My French" was executive-produced by Combs and Montana-kindred-spirit Ross, whose Maybach Music Group has been something of a second home.
"Is it important to have a crew behind me?" Montana asks, summarizing a question about his diplomatic proclivities. He chews on the thought for a moment before answering. "No, it's important to have me behind them. That's how I look at it. You can't just roll with a situation like you're depending on somebody to help you. You're supposed to help the situation, whatever the situation is that you're in."
In February at Daddy's House studios in New York, Montana resembles a king in his court. He's wearing large, black Versace sunglasses accessorized with gold jewelry and sits in front of a console eating two dinners at once-fettuccine alfredo and chicken parmesan. It's the night before he sets out on a 17-city headlining tour, his first, and he's generous with two bottles of liquor resting on a small black table next to him. He personally pours drinks for his entourage and two reporters.
"This is a French Montana album listening," he says. "You're supposed to enjoy yourself!"
"Excuse My French," like most of Montana's previous output, is heavy on collaborations (M.I.A., Lana Del Rey and the Weeknd are a few of the more unpredictable gets), but it's one of the album's few solo tracks that truly excites the rapper. The song "Ain't Worried Bout Nothing" was released in April as the project's third single, following last year's "Pop That" and February's "Freaks" featuring Nicki Minaj. "Ain't Worried Bout Nothing" is marked by a skittering, steely instrumental over which Montana delivers each of his lines ponderously and with a hard stop, deliberately emphasizing his point. On the chorus, he barks the song's title repeatedly, burying it in the listener's memory with an effectiveness that recalls his peer and occasional collaborator 2 Chainz.
Bad Boy president Harve Pierre offers an explanation for why there hasn't been more solo Montana material. "It's really not about him needing other people on his records. It's about other people wanting to be a part of what he's doing," he says. "They see the work that he's put in over the past 10 years and they relate to it. They know that he's real."
Promotionally, "Ain't Worried Bout Nothing" will be followed by a campaign that includes 15-second TV spots and 30-second online ads targeted at major music networks and hip-hop websites, respectively. Additionally, Pierre says Montana will be calling into hip-hop radio DJs across the country "every other day" in May until the album's release date. The new single and the album as a whole represent an overt attempt to prove that Montana can, after all, stand on his own as an artist. A similar thirst for independence, nurtured during a lifetime of being in but not of various groups, drives the rapper's quest for financial wealth as well.
"Money is the most important thing because there might be a time when you have no label behind you and you have to carry yourself," he says. "Money is the only thing that can shield you."