Chez Montana

A visit to the Southern California mansion of rapper French Montana to talk new music, collaborating with Cardi B, and never sleeping
By Stephanie Smith-Strickland
May 20, 2019 at 03:01 PM EDT

It’s a brisk day in Calabasas and French Montana is thumbing through his phone while taking drags from a cigarette. The Braveheart soundtrack and a Nina Simone compilation flash across the screen before he tilts the phone from my view and hits play. “Downhill Lullaby” by Sky Ferreira (French is a big fan) bursts across the open-air courtyard — one of the features that made him fall in love with this Spanish-style home, which he casually mentions formerly belonged to Selena Gomez. 

Though he is currently fine-tuning his upcoming third studio album, slated to drop this summer, it hasn’t stopped French from adding to his vastly eclectic music collection. “You know why people sound the same nowadays?” he asks. “It’s because they only listen to their peers. You saw my phone, most of the songs aren’t even rap. I’m not clogging up my creative process because if I do that I’m not even going to know that I’m sounding like Future or Gunna or whoever. I feel like nobody is watching their diet. Whatever you put in your ear and stomach is what’s going to come out of your mouth.”

Where others might find inspiration by emulating the popular sounds of the moment, French spends days at a time in the studio on a quest for a track that forces him to make the ugly face because it’s just that good. One breakout favorite, the Swae Lee-featured “Unforgettable,” is a result of persistence. The song, which has gone six-times platinum, came together after two straight days of sifting through sounds. “Let me put it like this,” says French, about his work ethic. “When you’re sleeping, I’m up. When you wake up, I’m already up. When you go back to sleep, I’m still up. When you wake back up, I might be thinking about taking a nap. What I’m trying to say is if you’re not in that studio long enough and you don’t have that passion you’re never going to find that right moment for yourself. I’m 10 years in the game and I’m still hungry to find that special record.”

With previous projects, French’s grueling travel schedule and the necessity of booking studio space often cut into valuable creative time, but all of that changed three years ago when he found his dream home. “This house is like having my own little sanctuary,” he says. “It has a Spanish vibe but it also feels Moroccan to me. I’m a firm believer that some houses bring you good luck and some just throw you off. The energy here felt right. Plus, I always used to have to go to studios in L.A. and by the time I left I’d feel like a zombie. You know, it’d be 8 a.m and I’d be driving in traffic just feeling like the worst piece of s— ever.”

These days, French wakes up at 7 a.m and takes a short walk from his house through a sprawling backyard to his home studio, themed in the red and green of the Moroccan flag. His Dapper Dan-designed Met Gala outfit earlier this month was similarly inspired. “Going to the Met Gala was such an amazing experience and I wanted to pay homage to my culture, especially with it being the first day of Ramadan,” he says. “Fashion is such an important form of self-expression and I wanted to represent [the] holy day in what I wore.”

The studio’s color scheme is another homage to his home country, and a constant visual indicator of what and who he represents. “It reminds me that the people who love me depend on me and if I let them down I let myself down. I’m the biggest artist to come out of Morocco, and as we speak, I’m one of the biggest artists to come out of the continent of Africa. Why wouldn’t I keep pushing?”

The walk to the studio, while brief, is certainly peaceful. There’s a curving brick driveway with a burbling fountain as its centerpiece, and in one corner of the yard sits a willow tree. French has set up a wooden bench underneath where he likes to come and smoke in the evening. Three bulging rosemary bushes dot the earth around the bench, subtly perfuming the air. In short, it really is a sanctuary, and the presence of a creative space in his home has only deepened his passion for music.

His latest single, “Slide,” which samples Snoop Dogg’s “Serial Killa,” was recorded in this personal oasis. “Honestly there was no plan,” he confesses, about how the song came together. “It was just me and Lil Tjay and then Blueface came in and the energy that was in the room made that track. They’re both young so it almost reminded me of how I was when I was coming up. They just have that special energy — I’d go in like that too, like a kid in a candy store. I saw my face in them. I know that feeling when you’re first coming up and your s— is finally taking off after you’ve been grinding for so long. They had that hunger so we knocked that s— out in under 15 minutes.”

The Cardi B- and Post Malone-featured “Writing on the Wall” (an unreleased track set to appear on the upcoming album) wasn’t made in French’s home, but there’s still a connection to the familiar that makes it one of the more special records on the project. “Me and Cardi are from the same borough,” he says. Though French was born in Morocco, his family relocated to the Bronx when he was 13 so he considers both places home. “I’m so happy to see her come out of those Bronx streets. It’s the mecca of hip-hop and where it all started so everybody is judging you for every little thing there. You have to grow thick skin. I truly believe only special people make it out of there.”

French’s self-described reputation of being the Michael Jordan of hooks is partly down to consistency and partly down to his choice to collaborate with people he genuinely likes. On his forthcoming record, French his leaning further into another thing he loves: production. On the days he isn’t recording, he spends time tweaking existing music to give it that bombastic, cinematic feel that is a hallmark of a French Montana track. “There’s a reason I was nominated for a Grammy for a beat before I got nominated for a song as a rapper,” he said, referring to Kanye West’s single “All Day.”

“As far as this album I’m more excited that I’m able to have the right people around me to keep me grounded and help me make the best music that I can make. I never really sat anywhere and made an album before. I was always all over the place — different studios, different cities. Sitting somewhere is how I ended up with ‘Unforgettable’ and now that I can stay stable in one studio and make music it’s about to be dangerous. It’s about to be very dangerous.”