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French Montana, ‘Excuse My French’ (Maybach Music/Bad Boy/Interscope)

French Montana / Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty
SPIN Rating: 5 of 10
Release Date: May 21, 2013
Label: Maybach Music/Bad Boy/Intrerscope

French Montana lacks a certain intangible quality. He isn’t as “wavy” as former cohort Max B (though he’s not in prison, either). He lacks the supercharged personality of frequent collaborator Waka Flocka Flame. And even though he started his own record label, Cocaine City, before aligning with Maybach Music and Bad Boy, he doesn’t exactly exude the I-own-you-all mogul quality of a Diddy or Rick Ross. That personality crisis extends to his official debut album, Excuse My French, where his presence remains sketchy.

Though the Morocco-born, Bronx-raised MC’s actual rapping ability isn’t up to the level of a Kendrick Lamar, he consistently turns a simple phrase into a highly catchy mantra by sheer force of repetitive will: see Chinx Drugz’ late-2012 single “I’m a Coke Boy” and its unforgettable, French-driven mantra “I’m a ma-fuckin’ coke boy.” This might not sound like a particularly notable skill, but songs here like “When I Want” and “Bust That Open” quickly burrow into your head, even if the actual verses are hard to recall. The long-delayed album succeeds when French is allowed to chant a sticky hook (see latest single “Ain’t Worry About Nothin”) and nobody’s rhymes — including his own — get in the way.

Unfortunately, that’s no easy task. Excuse My French is a major-label rap product, meaning the star attraction is forced to share the spotlight on his own songs, often with multiple guests — Ross, Nicki Minaj, Drake, Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne, 17 in all (23 on the deluxe edition). R&B hooks from the Weeknd, Jeremih, and Ne-Yo do complement the album’s overall dour mood, but they’re too professional-sounding compared to French’s own appealingly sloppy, off-kilter hooks. With the exception of singles that reference Miami bass (“Pop That”) and dancehall (“Freaks”), the album overemphasizes trap-inspired beats (“Trap House”), with minor diversions into darker EDM sounds (“I Told Em”). French raps competently, but the tracks sound more geared toward the bigger stars assembled around him.

The end result is that French disappears on his own album. His biggest single to date, “Pop That,” was dominated by Drake, Rick Ross, and Lil Wayne; his other radio hit, “Freaks,” needed Nicki Minaj to generate spins. Even the beats on those singles — an Uncle Luke sample on the former, and a rework of Lil Vicious’ “Freaks” on the latter — feel more prominent than the main guy rapping over them. French has a great, unique adlib (“Haaan”), an identifiable voice, and a face recognizable in a silhouette. But on Excuse My French, he’s outshone and undervalued.