We should talk about Max B. Over the past few years, the Harlem sing-rapper has emerged as one of the most influential rap voices in the world, his emotive drug-fogged singsong helping to make the world safe for people like Future and Wiz Khalifa. And he’s not some unknown pioneer; he’s been acknowledged as such. Rappers have been seeking his approval, to the point where Kanye West devoted an interlude on The Life Of Pablo to making sure everyone knew Max B was OK with Kanye using the word “waves.” Max B’s recent prominence is amazing for a couple of reasons. One reason is that Max has been in prison for the last seven years. In 2009, he was sentenced to 75 years behind bars for setting up an armed robbery that turned into a murder. Another reason is that Max B was never especially good at making music.
I spent about three and a half years in New York, starting in the middle of the last decade. This was not an especially good period for New York rap. I got to be there for the concurrent rises of a series of bring-New-York-back goons, touted mixtape prospects who never amounted to much because their music was boring. For a while there, people really thought Papoose and Saigon and Maino were stars in the making. People were wrong. I was there for the breakup of the Diplomats and for the Wu-Tang Clan’s final slide into just-for-the-heads festival fare. I was there for 50 Cent losing his spot to Kanye West and for Jay-Z releasing Kingdom Come. And I was there for Max B.
I didn’t get the big deal with Max B. For me, he was just some atonal-honking dingdong who couldn’t even sing as well as Freaky Zeeky but who was allowed to ruin multiple Cam’ron hooks for way too long. At the 2006 Hot 97 Summer Jam, Dipset closed out the show, and Cam and Jim Jones and Juelz Santana all got way, way less stage time than Max B. I couldn’t figure it out. I still can’t figure it out. Max was an original, sure. But at least to my mind, the whole depressive-singing thing was an interesting-in-theory formula, one that didn’t amount to much on its own. It took Future coming along to turn it into actual good music. Still, Max is an honest-to-god rap cult hero, a figure who’s become mythic since he went away to prison. Those stories are always fascinating. And I have a theory that Max B’s absence is the only reason we still have to deal with French Montana.
I was in New York for at least part of French Montana’s rise, too. The first time I encountered him, it was on a Smack DVD or on some other DVD-mixtape, which was going improbably deep on French’s beef with the Brooklyn battle rapper Murda Mook. Mook would clown French viciously in some living room, then French would watch Mook’s insults and mutter half-heartedly about how they were stupid. French didn’t make a great impression then. But French could make songs, something that Mook couldn’t do and that most rappers still can’t do. French was Max’s protege in the years before Max went to prison, and he got a definite boost from that association. But French was also capable of durable mixtape-rap bangers like “New York Minute” and “Shot Caller,” the latter of which crossed over into national underground-hit status a few years after I left the city. He teamed up with Harry Fraud, the psychedelic boom-bap producer who gave him an actual sound. And he proved himself capable of being the rare New York rapper who could make organic collaborations with Southern guys, like the Waka Flocka Flame team-up “Choppa Choppa Down.”
But once French teamed up with Rick Ross and Diddy in some kind of Maybach Music/Bad Boy dual venture, he lost the locally specific energy that had once made him an intriguing newcomer. Once the record-label machinery got moving behind French, it became painfully obvious that he was a deeply average rapper, not a star in the making. His official 2013 debut, Excuse My French, was a limp hit-chasing cobbled-together nothing that lost French’s sonic identity, and his biggest hit turned out to be “Pop That,” the superstar posse cut that had Drake and Ross and Lil Wayne all outrapping French. He felt like a guest on his own song. His rapping style is muttery and conversational, and when you remove him from the context of a Harry Fraud track like “Shot Caller,” he sounds like a happy Eeyore. He has no particular on-mic magnetism of his own, and he has a bad habit of letting his guests completely overwhelm him. Excuse My French bricked, and the year it came out, I saw French put on one of the saddest live rap performances I’ve ever seen. He headlined a day of the FADER Fort at SXSW, rapping in front of a live band whose under-rehearsed din he had no idea how to navigate. And he promised big guests, which turned out to be Diddy and Macklemore. Watching French attempt to amiably head-bop to “Thrift Shop,” a song whose point rebukes French’s entire silk-scarved existence, was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.
French’s music should be a lot more interesting than it is. His whole story — Moroccan immigrant kid to teenage Bronx drug dealer to NY mixtape scrapper to something like actual stardom — is the stuff that great biopics are made of. A few years ago, The FADER sent my friend Zach Baron to Morocco with French, and the result was one of my favorite magazine profiles ever. Zach watched as French met his father for the first time. It was really something. French’s look is great, too — all Versace and Egyptian cotton, a new spin on ancient ideas of luxury. In interviews, he comes across as warm-hearted as he does savvy — a rare thing for a major rapper. But none of the things that make French fascinating come across in his music. He’s had every chance to ascend to the upper levels of rap stardom, and he just can’t do it. On last year’s Coke Zoo mixtape, a full-length Fetty Wap collaboration, we get to hear a very real contrast between French, a longtime industry insider who can’t make the big leap, and Fetty, a grimy New Jersey outsider who’s already made that same leap. You’d think the music industry would’ve stopped trying with French by now. But they haven’t. They won’t.
Wave Gods, the new French Montana mixtape, isn’t awful, but it isn’t good, either. The best moments are the ones that give in fully to Harry Fraud’s sense of float and to whatever the guests might be doing. “Lock Jaw,” with the exciting Florida up-and-comer Kodak Black, is probably my favorite song on the tape, and that’s mostly because it’s really a Kodak Black song. “Figure It Out” is a Nas song with a Kanye West hook. “Man Of My City” is a Travis Scott song with a Big Sean verse. Max B hosts the tape, calling in from prison and saying nice things about French, but French never justifies them. I know plenty of New York people who think that French is an honest-to-god great rapper, and I know absolutely nobody from outside New York who feels the same way. In most cases, that would be fine; every city needs its own underground superstars. The problem is that various powers keep trying to push French to be something more. It’s never going to work.
That used to be the knock against Jadakiss, by the way — he was too New York-specific to resonate anywhere else. (50 Cent on “Piggy Bank”: “In New York, niggas like your vocals / But that’s only New York, dog / Your ass is local.”) And yet, when Jadakiss shows up on French’s “Old Man Wildin,” he just pops off it, shooting wizened guttural authority in every direction. French still hasn’t figured out how to project that sort or personality. But he’ll keep getting chances.
1. Tate Kobang – “Oh My”
A kid from Baltimore grabs a hypnotic, propulsive Honorable C-Note loop and gets all breathless and energetic over it, high-stepping over it like it’s Baltimore club. The whole thing is forward momentum — no room for contemplation, the hook almost a by-product of how fast and assured everything is. I’m from Baltimore, which means I’m going to stan hard for anyone who bursts out of my city with this sort of explosiveness. Even if I wasn’t, though, I’d still be amped. This is the sort of song that should make you amped, wherever you’re from.
2. Azealia Banks – “The Big Big Beat”
Azealia Banks’ best moments are the ones where she threatens to bring back hip-house. This one is a miles-deep thump that sounds like something Crystal Waters would’ve howled over in the early ’90s. Banks grabs it with authority, and she sounds like a revelation. Even the singing parts are fun as hell.
3. Aesop Rock – “Rings”
I think Aesop works best when his music has some fire to it, when it refuses to allow him to fold completely inward. This big, nasty rumble of a beat does the trick. Aesop is as lyrically dense as ever, but he’s rapping on-beat now in ways that he wasn’t doing 15 years ago. It’s all a little busy, but mostly in a good way.
4. T.I. – “Money Talk”
T.I. is an elder statesman at this point, but he’s still listening to rap, still adjusting, still learning. I love the subtle little Young Thug inflections he throws into this. He never bites, but he uses them to color his own flow, tweaking it just slightly so that it makes sense over a weird, blooping beat like this one.
5. Joey Bada$$ – “Retro”
Joey Bada$$ made his name doing ’90s-style New York retro-rap, and he could probably keep doing that forever without losing his audience. Instead, he suddenly sounds like he exists in the present day. The beat comes from boom-bap archivist Statik Selektah, but it has a glimmer to it that feels very new. And Joey has urgency and swagger; he is fully willing, for instance, to denounce New York nonentity Troy Ave.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
When ya folks ready for the destabilization of institutional racism in America but u just wanna see a triple double pic.twitter.com/ukrKQDZPiL
— X (@XLNB) February 21, 2016