Last month, the fast-food chain Wendy’s released a mixtape. Titled We Beefin?, it includes five relatively concise songs, lasting a total duration of ten minutes. Song titles include “4 for 4$” and “Rest in Grease.” Streaming services list the artist as “at Wendy’s”; the identity of the actual creators has been deliberately kept anonymous, although Metro Boomin and WondaGurl have confirmed production credits on “Holding it Back.” Over voguish trap beats, an embodiment of the corporation’s mascot, Queen Wendy, holds forth on subjects of great importance, including the excellence of the Baconator, the mediocrity of McDonald’s, and — how meta, — the brilliance of the Wendy’s marketing team. Whether one finds the songs engaging or the lyrics entertaining, the project’s totality is hilarious because it’s real. It actually happened.
If you’re accustomed to finding amusement in novelty, absurdity, and cultural detritus, the function of We Beefin? as an aesthetic artifact is disorienting. Although music critics have expressed misgivings about the very existence of the thing — and why shouldn’t they? — recoiling from the concept of a mixtape produced by a corporation inevitably reveals naive assumptions about what art can and should be. Only real musicians should make music, goes the initial grumble. Yet there’s no reason the people who programmed these beats and rapped these verses don’t qualify. Remix algorithms and stock compilations have produced brilliance, anyway. Likewise, there’s no reason corporations shouldn’t make music — Jay-Z is a corporation.
Whether or not music should serve as a marketing tool is another nonstarter. Music is commonly used as a marketing tool, from charity singles to songs in advertisements, and musicians often deploy marketing tools themselves, as hundreds of UPS trucks with Taylor Swift’s face painted on them could tell you. Whether marketing should be an album’s primary intention is trickier ground, but parsing artistic intentions is critical quicksand, a terrifying black hole of false consciousness, and baser intentions have produced better music. Even the subject matter is unobjectionable, as the Fat Boys and Action Bronson have demonstrated the merits of rapping about hamburgers. If anything, more artists should try writing food songs. I hereby declare We Beefin? a valid object of analysis for ordinary music criticism.
Music releases by brands are not unprecedented. In 2016, for instance, Hamburger Helper commissioned a similar mixtape from students at McNally Smith College of Music. We Beefin? hence joins its predecessor, the quintessential Watch the Stove by Hamburger Helper, as a notable example in the august genre of corporation-sponsored hamburger rap. If the beats are lit, why deny their mouthwatering appeal?
The litness of the beats on We Beefin? is variable. Midtempo rattling snares and ominous keyboard loops, half-buried under a wispy synth cloud, constitute the sonic essence of hip-hop in 2018 played at half speed, reminiscent of Future’s newer material. These songs share a restrained, mildly sedative quality with recent manifestations of trap and street rap; Metro Boomin and WondaGurl’s swaying, loopy beat on “Holding It Down” fits right in with the (largely uncredited) rest — or maybe it’s the rest that fits their model. The lead rapper, a husky-voiced woman playing the role of Queen Wendy, delivers the rhymes with tensile elegance and attention to sneered phrasing. She often sounds bored; I wonder how she’d enjoy rapping more substantive lyrics.
I wish the musicians were credited; beyond Metro Boomin and WondaGurl’s production credits (presumably the only names known and not affiliated with Wendy’s in the project), all we’re told is that marketing agency VML and creative consultancy Six Course rustled it up. Queen Wendy should rap more, perhaps in connection with other projects. It’d be lovely to know who she is.
Often textural attenuation thins out musical force, as the bleepy loop on “Clownin” fizzles into mist and the piano on “Twitter Fingers” spirals around at a tempo shy of moderate. “4 for 4$,” the liveliest track by some margin, bends an icy set of synthesized strings around skittering metallic percussion and a keyboard whose sudden octave jump lends the beat a certain bounce, while Queen Wendy sings the praises of the 4 for $4 value meal. The bubbly underwater synthesizer on “Rest in Grease,” perpetually morphing into a different textual register, enlivens the barbs thrown at McDonald’s and other chains: “Why your ice cream machine always broke/why your drive-through always slow/why your innovation just can’t grow?”
Note the above quote’s final clause: the language of corporate marketing teams, translated into hip-hop. While indeed a valid object of criticism, We Beefin? is advertising first and music second; its content matters less than its exploration of an uncharted outreach strategy. As advertising, We Beefin? is in character with Wendy’s Twitter presence, in which the company has cultivated a snarky voice, peppered with internet slang, regularly responding to user comments and openly insulting rival brands; it’s a lighthearted gesture, meant to amuse. As music it will entertain for prolonged periods only if A) brand loyalty has led you to have a personal stake in the performative jousting of megacorporations; or B) if you can’t stop laughing at the sheer, absurd novelty of the thing. Wendy’s encourages both such responses, especially the latter. They’re counting on comic incongruity, the mismatch between a fast food chain and an irreverent public presence — and, most crucially, the mismatch between a corporation and a rap mixtape.
It’s not that novel, though — We Beefin? and Hamburger Helper’s Watch the Stove are versions of the advertising jingle updated for today’s consumer culture. Moreover, Watch the Stove is funnier, awash in goofy yelping voices, oddly pieced-together beats, and generally droll self-mockery. We Beefin?’s relative sleekness and coldness reflect a specific focus on the rap beef — for the pun, naturally, as well as the excuse to diss rival brands in a (marginally) acceptable context. But one gets the sneaking suspicion it’s also for the intrinsic silliness of beefing and even hip-hop as phenomena. It’s a sophomore’s “hey, wouldn’t it be funny if this happened” type of hypothetical, appropriated as a corporate marketing strategy. The humor of integrating incongruous external elements into rap stems from a condescending attitude towards rap; it’s only funny if you already view rap as somehow ridiculous. Listen closely when Queen Wendy raps — you can almost hear the marketing team giggling in the back room.
That’s not the point. The point is to cater to millennial and black audiences, innovate new outreach techniques, operationalize customer happiness, etcetera. We Beefin? has gone viral neither on YouTube nor on streaming services, but these may not be the best metrics for an advertisement; the success of its own product is more telling.
I won’t predict whether more corporate mixtapes loom in the future. Imagine the onslaught: Spotify already teems with branded content in playlist form, and if said brands started regularly producing music of their own, branded takeover will become that much less of an alarmist buzzword. As ideals of artistic agency change, so will the need to evaluate the relationship between music and context, and how context can define and irrevocably transform an album.
We Beefin? (2018) is available from Amazon and other online retailers.