More so than any rapping ability, swagginess, or A&R masterminding, the ability to collaborate with a wide range of artists and dabble in various sounds without once straying from his distinct vocal style has been French Montana's greatest strength. He manages to bring others into his orbit without ever making the resulting music sound like a reach, whether it's Raekwon or Gucci Mane with the assist. That's why Coke Zoo, last October's collaborative tape with Fetty Wap, was such a letdown. For once, it seemed like French was riding somebody else's wave, tacking verses onto unreleased Fetty tracks and really not adding much to them. He's had his duds before, but at least they felt like his duds.

Contrast Coke Zoo with the tapes released before and after it, the relentlessly eclectic Casino Life 2 and last week's Wave Gods, and it seems even flatter. The former was a more boisterous, trap-flavored affair (with a few bones thrown to "real rap" fans on the Lil Wayne and Curren$y features), and the latter, while more reigned-in and tighter, is jam-packed with every style in which French has dabbled in the past. Wave Gods is probably his best tape yet, with its only competition being the EP-length Mac & Cheese 4 "Appetizer." The beautiful thing is that they're almost complete opposites, one a stylistic grab-bag and the other a brief, one producer, no features affair. Viewed together, they offer the platonic ideal of French Montana that he failed to deliver on Excuse My French.

Wave Gods is the first solo project French has released since his friend and Coke Boy signee Chinx was gunned down last summer, and a few jubilant cuts notwithstanding, it takes on a bit of a darker tone than most of his work. "Once Chinx passed I took some time off," he raps on the intro, before attacking the tape's one Harry Fraud-produced beat with what sounds like a reinvigorated sense of purpose. A few tracks later, he revisits 2013's (Kingdom Hearts-sampling!!) "Sanctuary" and adds new lyrics dedicated to Chinx. The deceased rapper's vocals grace penultimate track "All Over," a weird, melancholy blend of chipmunk soul and IDM, with his claim that "They don't like you doin' what you doin'" sounding downright eerie. In any other circumstance, tapping Max B to host a tape just after he got the most publicity of his life would feel opportunistic, but on Wave Gods, his wistful interludes fit perfectly with French's more mournful tones. With the possible exception of Lil Durk, he's lost more of his friends to prison and gunshots (Stack Bundles also gets name-dropped on the tape) than any other contemporary rapper, and perhaps due to the latest of these casualties being his protégé rather than a mentor, French sounds more wary and grateful than ever.

Instead of rendering the rest of the tape hollow, Wave Gods' sadder songs actually make its moments of celebration even more powerful, adding weight to phrases like "I'm the man in my city" or even something as materialistic as "Holy moly, diamonds on my Rollie." The whole tape has a pretty haunting sound, but it manages to use that mood for different purposes: obviously, regret-tinged ballads, but also ghostly trap fare, and some truly grimey boom bap. Throughout the 2010s, French has done a better job than anyone else in his city at keeping up with modern trends while still making sure we know he's first and foremost a New York rapper, able to dabble in the trap world while still linking with Raekwon, Nas, Jadakiss-- seemingly any NY legend he wants. Like, "Old Man Wildin'" is basically the hottest Jedi Mind Tricks song since "Sacrifice," but then it's followed by the experimental "All Over" and a remix of modern-sounding radio hit "Off The Rip." French's career, enjoyable as it's been, has been short on "No one else could do this" moments, but this final run of songs is nothing if not that.

Wave Gods flows well enough to be a lesser artist's album, but you can still see spots or aspects that could be improved when it comes time for Mac & Cheese 4: The Album. For one, French needs to step up his writing on tracks like "Holy Moly." He's great at intros, where he finds his groove amid infectious flows and doesn't have to focus on fitting in with the hook, but when he's left to his own devices for an entire song centered around a big hook, he fails to captivate for more than a minute or two. There's also the two song lull of "Groupie Love" and "Jackson 5," neither of which are particularly bad tracks, but their tempos and tone don't really fit in with anything else on Wave Gods. The eclecticism is great for a tape, but when it's album time, I'm hoping French is able to find a middle ground in his sound and explore its intricacies. If you put the intro, "Sanctuary Pt. II," the phenomenal "Lock Jaw," "All Over," and "Off The Rip" together back to back, you'd get something that sounds distinctly like French Montana all the way through with few distractions from guests-- that's what he needs to elevate his game beyond "guy with a knack for catchy tracks and stacked guestlists" status.