French Montana: The Billboard Photo Shoot
"I want to capitalize on it," says Montana. "I’ll get a fan base from everywhere. I just hope I’ll be able to connect with everything that’s going on."
After the shoot wraps -- and Zane is escorted away, to the relief of all -- Montana walks through his manicured lawn, surrounded by flowers, and into his house to change out of his robe, swim trunks and Gucci slippers. He emerges in black jeans and Givenchy kicks. It’s time to get to work.
Montana settles into a comfy red leather chair in his studio, while his longtime producer Harry Fraud rolls a joint. For the holy month, Montana, a lifelong Muslim, is abstaining from drugs, alcohol and sex.
"Ramadan slows me down. It’s such a beautiful month. Whatever you can’t stop, you [abstain from] during Ramadan," says Montana. Reverence for his faith and culture is visible throughout his home: Arabic prayers adorn the living room, and "Allah" is inscribed on two medallions that hang loosely around his neck.
"This is when we lock in. This is when it starts, today," says Montana, pointing to a board against the wall, where there are tacked some 40 note cards scribbled with lyrics to songs he’s cooked up on the road.
Watch: Behind the Scenes at French Montana's Billboard Shoot
Now back home, he’s called upon the Coke Boys, his crew of artists and associates -- which today, in addition to Fraud, includes manager Gaby Acevedo and rappers Chinx and Velous -- to help craft his album. "I listen to a lot of outside input," says Montana. "I can’t make music for myself. I make music for the people."
Watch Khloe Kardashian Get Creepy in French Montana's 'Don't Panic' Video
Mac & Cheese is named after an earlier trilogy of mixtapes that sparked a rumored label tug-of-war between Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music, Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group and Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Records (he signed with the lattermost in 2011). Montana wants his new album to convey that same gritty, New York rap aesthetic. His slick 2013 debut, Excuse My French, lacked it, which may explain its middling sales -- 56,000 copies in the first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- even after Montana rapped on two all-star hits: his own "Pop That," featuring Drake, Ross and Lil Wayne, and Ross' "Stay Schemin'," featuring Montana and Drake, which peaked at Nos. 2 and 40, respectively, on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
While Montana doesn’t quite cast his first album as a failure, he admits he made a mistake switching up his sound for the reggae-inspired single "Freaks" (featuring Nicki Minaj). "When you go to the club and every record they’re playing is yours, you try to go left, and I made that mistake," he says. "Jay Z told me he once made that same mistake too. Your first album you never know what’s going on with the business and labels. The second one you’re like, ‘F— this.’ You get the ball in your own court."
Acevedo chimes in, confirming that Montana will be taking the reins for this album, rather than relying on label directives. "We’re team players, but he’s got creative control," he says. "He builds the album on his own, at his house. We don’t have an A&R; he’s his own A&R."
Lending a helping hand are the album’s executive producers, West -- who’s also Montana’s girlfriend’s brother-in-law, of course -- and Fraud. "We’re re-creating the sound of the mixtapes but then turning it up and expanding," says Fraud.
French Montana Drops 'Freaks' Video, Featuring Nicki Minaj: Watch
Mac & Cheese’s first single is "Don’t Panic," released Aug. 12 and steeped in producer DJ Mustard’s club-ready sound. The frenzied highlight "Gucci Mane," featuring Ross and Lil Wayne and produced by West and The MeKanics, includes the lyrics, "I’m about to lose it, man/I’m about to go Gucci Mane," name-dropping the troubled Atlanta rapper. "That’s going to make people nervous," predicts Fraud.
"Explicit," a romantic, drowned-out duet with Miguel, is another standout. "The platform they got me on right now, an R&B record would do me really good with the ladies," says French with a wide grin.
That platform is, of course, the media spotlight on his new love. Luckily, Kardashian has plenty of experience with such matters.
"She told me, 'They will spread negative energy if they can. Don’t let it get to you,'" he says, toying around on his white piano.
Montana says that Kardashian, who makes a cameo in the "Don’t Panic" music video, also has been involved in the recording of Mac & Cheese. "She’s definitely given her feedback on the songs," he says, noting that "Explicit" is her favorite track.
The rapper promises to reveal even more personal matters on the album. "You’ll get the skeletons, the meat," he says.
But what about appearing on an upcoming season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians? Montana won’t say.
"I’m in a beautiful headspace," he offers, still smiling. "Wait and see."
This article first appeared in the Aug. 23rd issue of Billboard.