My favorite street rap single of 2015 came out last Thanksgiving. The name Montana of 300 immediately conjures the Fitzgeraldian social climbing “French” goon crooner from the Bronx and the numbers of Chief Keef’s crew. But the Chicago rapper behind the best ice cream-related single since the old masters isn’t talking about selling weight out of the freezer, but pulling up slowly and emptying out every chamber. This is rap that explains where the Chiraq nickname came from, acts of urban terrorism carried out with monster movie masks, cold-blooded efficiency, and the eerie twinkles of the ice cream truck.
It’s this kind of atmosphere and attention to detail that makes Montana significantly better than his generic name might suggest. We’re already beyond the overwrought “drill is dead” prophecies. Keef has entered the Weed and Pills Phantom Tollbooth in Woodland Hills. Durk and Reese haven’t finagled a release date. Neither can bop master healers, Sicko Mobb.
As a whole, the city has never been been responsible for more great music, even if half the rappers now live on the South Side of the Santa Monica Mountains. LA transplant Chance has embarked on a mission to topple Tyler the Creator in the running to executive produce a Jamiroquai comeback album (or worst case scenario: the Brand New Heavies). Open Mike Eagle has proved that occasionally NPR listeners can get it right. Mick Jenkins, Vic Spencer, Lil Herb and Bibby, Vic Mensa, and Saba have all been consistently excellent over the last 12 months. And due to her Timbaland and Future Brown affiliation, Tink might be the surest bet for mainstream stardom.
But if you’re judging solely on streaming metrics, Montana might the city’s most popular new artist. Without radio, co-signs, or much blog love, the Southside rapper has dropped a dozen videos with a million or more plays. His remix of “Try Me” is over 7.5 million, with enough guns to have gotten him onto a Trill Ent compilation. For a song like “Ice Cream Man,” the drill signifiers are all there — the semi-automatics and sneer, auto-tune and triplicate hi-hats. But the melodies almost merge with the more sugary Bop sounds — the hook lingers in your head like a hangover.
You can hear the same thing on his “Trap Queen” remix, bragging about pistols on the dancefloor. He’s closer to someone like Kevin Gates or Durk than say Keef. At heart, he is a rapping-ass rapper, snapping at cyphers and shilling mixtapes since 10th grade. The sober son of a Vice Lord and a former crack addict, there’s a mixture of pain and aggression in most bars. You might mistake this for simplistic street shit, but there’s the sort of hunger and ferocity found in almost every great rapper that ever really started from the bottom.
You can see that more clearly on Cursed with a Blessing, his mixtape from last fall. “All I Ever Wanted” is a self-contained mission statement about growing up in the projects, watching roaches on the ceiling, sharing knives and forks because there wasn’t enough silverware, listening to his dad bump Biggie and 2Pac and dreaming of rapping well enough to escape. It might not be his most popular video, but it’s the kind of thing that suggests a certain longevity. He has a unique voice and he’s cold.