It has been barely 45 seconds since French Montana, the jovial Morocco-born, Bronx-bred rapper, settled into the private backroom of Beverly Hills’ Mr. Chow, and already -- without even glancing at a menu -- he has ordered a lychee martini, a round of vodka shots for the table and three distinct types of prawns. Then there’s the chicken satay, and the scallops, and the vegetarian lettuce wraps for his little brother, Ayoub, who frequently whips out his phone to amuse French with Instagram comedy videos. But our entire party hasn't yet arrived, and French insists that he won’t eat until everyone eats -- so, in the meantime, more shots. By the second one, I am ready to show him my “Stay Schemin’” tattoo -- inspired by the 2012 Rick Ross song mostly remembered for its French Montana hook -- to which he responds with a joyful “Gra-ta-ta!”
There are celebrities who suck the air out of a room, implicitly demanding everyone be on their absolute best behavior. But when French walks in the door -- grinning widely in lavishly embroidered white linens, top buttons undone to just-stepped-off-the-yacht effect so as to better highlight the dozen diamond chains around his neck -- the party has officially begun.
As a matter of fact, unbeknownst to Sandra Bullock (who’s celebrating her 54th birthday in the room next door, the waiters murmur), her party hasn't officially begun, either. “Ahh, they’re singing that ‘Happy Birthday,’ bro!” says French with a smile when he hears strains of the song through the wall, as if the mere thought of complete strangers enjoying themselves soothes his soul. “I’m about to roll in there!”
His manager laughs. “You’re just going to walk up in there like ‘Yoooo!’? You’ll steal her thunder!” French concedes -- then, a half-hour later, he strolls in to introduce himself and wish Bullock a happy birthday as if they were childhood pals.
To anyone who has listened to hip-hop radio in the last six years, it’s no surprise that the 33-year-old born Karim Kharbouch would be in such a gregarious mood. French Montana came to New York from Morocco as a teen, then spent his early life acclimating to the streets of the South Bronx, selling drugs to provide for his family and ultimately getting shot in the head leaving a recording studio in 2003. But since then, he has managed to transition from New York’s mixtape circuit to big-budget hits, becoming the go-to guy for reliably fun guest verses and landing two albums in the top five of the Billboard 200 as a solo artist. He’s a throwback to rap’s old school who, with his cheerfully DGAF attitude, fits in perfectly with the genre’s changing, youth-dominated landscape. He vibes with everyone.
Recently, French returned from a summer spent playing European festivals, from London’s Wireless to a headlining set at Belgium’s Tomorrowland. “I know there are bigger artists than me, but put them on the same stage as me at a festival, and I’ll blow them out of the water,” French says matter-of-factly. He managed to catch the World Cup finals in Russia, where “Welcome to the Party,” his recent collaboration with Diplo and Lil Pump, blasted through the stadium in the immediate wake of France’s win. For French, the moment resonated beyond the initial thrill: “Soccer gave me my first visa to leave Africa and showed me [it’s a] bigger world out there!” he tweeted ecstatically from the game, punctuating the thought with his trademark “Hannnn!”
“I believe in love,” he says with a shrug. “I come from a lifetime of negativity -- from being shot to everything you can think about, I done been through it. But I got more out of love.” He helps himself to more salt-and-pepper prawns. “Since I started, I was always the underdog. And everybody loves the underdog.”
Karim Kharbouch spent the first 13 years of his life in Morocco, just outside of Casablanca. His father crafted a plan to bring his family to New York, but it went south pretty quickly. “My father got in trouble, and they gave him visas to bring me here,” says French. “He couldn't handle it and he went back; my mother had to stay here with us and get on welfare. It was a choice -- she sacrificed for us. And it worked, by mistake.” He sips from one of two lychee martinis that have just arrived (both for him). “I became the biggest artist out of my country by mistake,” he says.
Arriving in the South Bronx in 1996, French spoke no English. “The language barrier was, like, the most disrespectful thing you could ever step into,” he remembers. “If you walk into somewhere and you can’t speak English, everybody looking at you, laughing at you and making jokes. I didn't know what the fuck they was talking about. But you could tell.” Noticing his accent, the guys on his block started calling him “Bonjour,” which eventually became “French.” Montana came later, after Tony from Scarface, naturally: “Everybody knew I was the No. 1 hustler.”
Back then, rap wasn't the first thing on French’s mind. “I was trying to play basketball, and I was good at it,” he says. “But I couldn't go to college. I had a green passport, so they was like, ‘You can’t get a scholarship.’” Out of high school, he started selling drugs and served time in jail twice; after the third offense, he was told, he’d be deported. “What the fuck am I going to do now? Keep going until I get locked up again?” French recalls thinking. He was out of options, and wanted to provide for his brothers. “So that’s when I started rapping.”
French’s trajectory spans just about every formal shift in 21st century hip-hop: from his early Cocaine City DVDs, which established him in the streets, to the late 2000s mixtape circuit (both as a solo artist and alongside Harlem legend Max B), to major-label deals and studio albums. If you start with his first DVD in 2002, French has been relevant in the rap game for over 15 years, and at 33, he isn't just surviving -- he’s the biggest he has ever been. 2017’s “Unforgettable,” a balmy, dancehall-inspired collaboration with Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee, is French’s highest-charting song to date, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In an era when a kid can upload a track to SoundCloud and go viral overnight, this kind of patient upward slope is far from the norm. But French has a nonchalant attitude toward bridging the old and new schools of success. “I just know how to make music,” he says. “When the DVD game was poppin’, I was poppin’. When the internet took over, I was poppin’ on the internet. When the mixtape game was poppin’, I stayed on top. When I jumped into albums, I was poppin’. I think everybody gets this whole shit fucked up: It’s just about music.”
French on record is a lot like French in person -- the guy invited to every party, who charms without trying and never seems to wear out his welcome. His first real hit, “Choppa Choppa Down,” both beguiled and confused people. Here was a Moroccan immigrant from the Bronx, making hardcore Southern trap music with a Waka Flocka Flame feature. But then came “Shot Caller,” a track that couldn't have been more quintessentially New York, with lyrical nods to classic ’90s one-liners and a beat that sounded like a block party.
“And that’s when I started hitting them: ‘Pop That,’ ‘Stay Schemin’,’ all that. I was like, ‘Ping, ping, ping, ping! How do you want it?’” says French, tossing imaginary darts across a map. He wasn’t stuck in any particular box. He was even a couple of years ahead of the rappers who’d start interpolating Caribbean sounds: 2013’s insanely catchy “Freaks,” featuring Nicki Minaj, sampled Jamaican duo Chaka Demus and Pliers’ 1992 classic, “Murder She Wrote,” before just about anyone. And as his presence on the charts became a constant -- 14 songs on the Hot 100 since 2012 -- French’s formerly elusive appeal became increasingly clear: He wasn't trying to bowl you over with lyrical miracles, he was just trying to have a great time. I can basically sum up every party I attended in 2012 with one nasal, Bronx-accented ad-lib: “Hannnn!”
Lately, he says, he has been turning down far more offers than he says yes to; after years of nonstop output, he wants to work smarter, not harder -- a lesson he has absorbed from Sean "Diddy" Combs. “One thing I learned from him is that you don’t have to rap,” he says. As in, you retire in your 40s and invest elsewhere? “It’s not that -- Puffy still raps,” he explains. “But when it becomes a business, that can take away from the love of music. Some people have to tour because they got bills. You got to become that person who can take five years off and come back because you love it.” His next album is coming together, but he doesn't want to rush it. “I come from the mixtape era -- we just dropped shit,” he says. “I’m going to make sure this one gets the respect it deserves.”
“I knew French had that special sound since the first time I heard him,” says Combs. “And now, to see how far he has come -- he’s a major force in hip-hop and a proven hitmaker. But he’s also more than that: He’s an agent for change.”
Already, French has started to turn his focus outward. After filming the video for “Unforgettable” in Uganda with local dance crew Triplets Ghetto Kids (who joined him onstage at the 2017 BET Awards), he donated $100,000 to the local Mama Hope organization, toward building the Suubi Health Center. His latest campaign, We Are the Dream, responds to the Trump administration’s rescindment of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy; its website is a hub of information for undocumented students, including scholarship opportunities -- the kind that French dreamed of nearly two decades ago.
And in July, after a 10-year-plus process prolonged by legal hassles, French finally became an American citizen. I wonder if he ever gets dragged down by the injustices in his adopted homeland -- if there are times when he still feels like the 13-year-old kid who doesn't belong. “Honestly, this country is built by immigrants. So I never feel like that anymore,” he says after some consideration. He thinks back to that time, imagining if his mother had returned to Morocco with his dad. “Who knows where I’d be right now?” he reflects. “I’d be in Morocco, selling corn, cameras. In some countries there’s more opportunity -- but I feel like that’s only limited by how many chances you want to take.” It could be a somber moment, but within seconds, he’s back to laughing and toasting the table.
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 11 issue of Billboard.