What’s The Matter With Montana?

After what can be described only as an unlikely ascent, in 2013, French Montana displays most of the trappings of a bona fide rap superstar. He is the CEO of his own record label. Frequent collaborators include a veritable who’s who of rap’s commercial upper-echelon: Drake, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, and DJ Khaled, to name a few. Bad Boy Records has promoted his career more relentlessly than any artist since Diddy himself. His most recent giveaway, Mac & Cheese 3, was downloaded over a million times, ranking it among the most copped mixtapes in Datpiff history. He is, apparently, the proud owner of two adorable baby tigers.

Yet for all his stature and good fortune, Frenchie lacks one crucial prerequisite to stardom: a brand compelling enough to actually shift units. His first commercial outing, Excuse My French, which dropped May 21, has been an unambiguous flop. With just 54,000 copies sold in its first week, it’s obvious his debut isn’t going to fanute him into the hip hop heavyweight he was meant to be.

No doubt, the lackluster sales have inspired some soul searching at the offices of the innumerable distributors, labels, and cosigners invested in Montana’s success. If the combined street marketing genius of Rozay and Diddy can’t manufacture a profitable rap career these days, what hope does the rest of the industry have? On this no-expense-spared endeavor, did the Coke Boys not give the people what they time and again demonstrated they wanted?

Until now, the derivativeness of Montana’s sound had never proven a liability for him or his peers. Whatever you have to say about Excuse My French’s details (which, suffice it to say, it’s light on), it’s hard to dispute that the album is pretty much on par with the boilerplate Montana has been churning out for years to ravenous demand. Glibly disengaged delivery, braggadocio so uninspired it undermines itself, half-sung hooks; the album features all his stylistic trademarks. In fact, many of its tracks spent over a year circulating online prior to their official release, ratcheting up seven figures views on Youtube in the meantime.

The disparity between Montana’s supposed popularity and Excuse My French’s anemic performance illuminates again that success in the mixtape circuit is by no means a guarantee of marketability. The internet’s hype divisions bombard us daily with quality uncontrolled, cost free media, and, in doing so, redefine what it means to be a fan. This stream of content repositions the listener as a curator. It is now their job, not the artists’, to glean through the material and separate the bangers from the chaff. So do a lot of people like French Montana? Yeah, just as I’m sure fairly broad swaths of the population enjoy MGK, Fabolous, Young Dolph, and all of the other loosely shaded in rappers who hand over their material and ask nothing in return. Even if the menu is dull, everyone’s a fan of a free lunch.

In both output and content, this subset of artists is workmanlike, each having defined their comfort zone long ago and then remained safely within it. They thrive on producing lots of passable, if also totally forgettable, material; the kind of disposable culture hip hop has grown fat on this decade. A Curren$y tape, for instance, all but guarantees a bleary-eyed look at a day in the life of a well-satiated stoner, all recounted in a sticky drawl. And a Gucci Mane release is so certain to be loaded with gelatinous wordplay and bleating synths that many blogs don’t even bother reviewing them anymore. These rappers’ consistency is rivaled only by their prolificacy. Guwap unleashed five mixtapes in the first quarter of 2013 alone (predictably, after such a torrent of material, his first solo studio effort in three years barely made a dent in the Top 200 when it dropped last month).

For artists this prodigious, their only shot at commercial viability relies on attracting a base so feverishly committed to their sound/image that they’ll buy anything they attach their name to. But Montana’s audience displays no such devotion. Instead, he functions as something of a foot soldier in the Maybach Music Empire. Along with the likes of Meek Mill, his material plugs gaps between releases from more personally compelling acts, such as Rick Ross or Gunplay. I know I’m not alone in feeling like he sometimes exists just to round out tracks that could use a high profile, low risk addition. Unfortunately, the late-breaking attempts at transforming Montana into an icon overlook the fact that he has been positioned as a foil almost since Day 1. That’s not to say he is completely without his guiles (his chant of “fuck you, pay me” on “Throw It In The Bag” reminds every straight-faced critic out there he’s fundamentally a goof that’s in on the joke too), but it is safe to assume people are drawn to his work more for its reliable mediocrity than creative dynamism.

Accordingly, when web famous artists like Montana try to cash in on their World Star credits with a record contract, it’s no surprise that sales tend to be disappointing. We’ve already heard the material, it’s been circulating for months, and the mixtape was better. In a word, nobody in their right mind would pony up ten dollars to hear Excuse My French and the sky isn’t falling.

Follow Luke Hopping on Twitter at @lukeylaserdisc