- Luke Awtry
Highest Lows by newcomer D.FRENCH is, simply put, one of the best Vermont rap albums of the year. It's an urgent introduction to a talented MC, known to his friends and family as Dominic French. Though the record is a cool, confident triumph, the story behind it cuts deep with stories about small towns, young men and drug addiction. But French's tale is also one of community, redemption and rebuilding.
The beginning of that story will probably sound familiar: French didn't realize that he had a problem until it was too late.
"I graduated from UVM with no real focus on what I wanted to do," recalls French, 29, "and I realized how fast life hits when the party stops."
Recreational opioid use had become a full-blown addiction, and French found himself "at a crossroads between losing everything I had or completely changing the focus of my thinking."
He chose the latter, but change takes time. French describes a long, difficult stage of trying and failing to get clean — he was "stuck in a feedback loop," he says. And when change finally happened, it was almost by accident.
"I was able to get through a week straight while I was working out of town on a job," recalls French, who is a civil engineer. "Something switched in my head during that week."
These days, he comes off like a newly religious man: grateful, charismatic and energized by his conversion.
"I'm always working to maintain a focus on sacrifice over expectation," French explains, "and I had to become dedicated to something bigger than myself."
In practice, that meant working his ass off.
"I began dedicating myself as much as possible at work, just as a way to get through the day," he says.
That renewed hustle on big projects changed his career for the better. "The momentum from that week has helped me start opening different doors in life," French says. "My nine-to-five is more like a six-to-six."
Despite his progress, there were dark days early on. Specifically, he says he struggled when returning to his artistic life because, previously, he had made much of his music while high.
"Coming from a phase of creating all my music under the influence, to the point where I essentially felt numb from everything, it was a tough process to get back into creating art for a while," French says. "There were a few periods during that transition where I couldn't even listen to music at all."
Fortunately, that passed. Quickly, too, perhaps because music has always been a part of his life.
French says he first started making music with his younger brother, Isaac, the 2019 Seven Daysies award winner for best pop artist or group. Backing up his brother with vocals and percussion on live performances was an important anchor during his early recovery. And those gigs encouraged him to return to his own music.
"I started to find a form of therapy in my own songwriting," French says, "and that drew me back into rapping, but with a sense of purpose. I felt like, I have a story to tell now, and it might be able to reach people going through similar struggles."
Highest Lows is a deeply personal and aspirational album. It's also a finely honed product, full of club-friendly songs and breezy boasts. The roll call of local guest MCs is outstanding: Learic, Konflik, Jibba the Gent, Maiden Voyage rapper/crooner Teece Luvv, and the Cognac Cousins team of Raw Deff and Yung Breeze.
Once French committed to making a proper debut LP, he took the same motivated, all-in approach he brings to the worksite each day. Still, he emphasizes how organically his all-star team coalesced.
"It came together naturally, through newly forged relationships in the hip-hop scene," French explains. "It was built out of respect."
"It was rad," says Zach Crawford, aka SkySplitterInk, local polymath and recording engineer for most of the process. "I honestly looked forward to every Saturday morning session we had."
Crawford was impressed by French's professionalism as much as his flow.
"He has a creative and organized way about him," says Crawford, "which are two things that often don't go hand in hand."
While Highest Lows is a broadly accessible listening experience, full of party rap and carefully observant of current hip-hop trends, it's also a hyper-local affair, proudly broadcasting out of St. Albans. To hear him tell it, French's hometown is an essential part of his identity.
St. Albans has a surprising amount of hip-hop talent for a town its size. Its MCs also have a distinctly different vibe from Burlington rappers — less conscious, more street.
The biggest names in this current wave are Dolla Day, known for his whip-smart, cinematic bars, and Sikke and Eugenyks, collectively known as Joint Manipulation. That duo's imposing catalog is a blender of aggressive, and aggressively political, '90s rap legends, owing as much to Organized Konfusion as the Lox. French credits his Rail City contemporaries not just as peers but as mentors.
"St. A has a stubborn mentality," French says, "but when we all came together in the early 2000s, we fed off each other in a huge way. I learned a lot."
He's also quick to shout out local producers, such as Hardy White, Solution, Instinct and Dokowala. The last's real name is Alex Robtoy, and he produced a standout track on Highest Lows, "Like Stockton."
"I'd say that St. Albans keeps you humble," Robtoy says. "You really have to love it if you're going to make this genre of music here, because most people do not get it and do not want to. "
None of that is unique to St. Albans. These dynamics shape any small, rural scene, and the Green Mountains are fairly full of them. Other inexplicable hip-hop hot spots include Bethel, Bradford, Morrisville and Windsor. All boast scenes where cooperation ultimately proved more important than competition.
Rapping is such an inherently social act, it's easy to forget that MCs are forged by endless hours of solitary work. For French, a family man with a wife and two kids, that mostly happens behind the wheel. He treats every workday commute as a precious opportunity to practice, brainstorming hooks and flow patterns.
"The man is freestyling all damn day to himself," confirms Robtoy of French. "You have to really love the expression of music, and do it every day, to be as consistent as he is. He's the real deal."
More than anything, French is grateful for his second chance, and he intends to keep creating.
"The feedback I've gotten has been a huge inspiration," he says of Highest Lows. "I've definitely made huge leaps in the last few years, and I dropped my debut late in the game," he continues. "It's a motivator to double down on my music."