During my childhood years, my family’s kitchen cabinets used to be lousy with the sorts of commemorative glassware you’d get at Burger King or McDonald’s — a Luke Skywalker here, a Snoopy there. These were part of huge global marketing pushes for creative projects being milked for every last ounce of intellectual property, but also savvy positioning by the restaurants. Fast-food companies have long attempted to stave off disposability by piggybacking on broader cultural moments, hoping to extend their reach beyond the comestible into the permanently tangible.
In 2020, a fast-food chain looking for equivalent big-tent cultural relevance has few more compelling places to turn than hip-hop, the cultural arena with the most natural and ambitious gift for merchandising. And in hip-hop, there are fewer more ambitious personal branders than Travis Scott, who has his own festival, several Nike collaborations, a cereal, a Hot Wheels and much more to his name.
That said, the collaboration between McDonald’s and Scott, which began this week and includes a range of merchandise and a limited-edition meal, initially seems preposterous — what does McDonald’s know about the right singing-to-rapping ratio? What does Scott know about the right salt-to-fry ratio?
Juggernauts gonna juggernaut, though. And each gets something from the other. For Scott, it’s the scale of the flex — a partnership with a brand the magnitude of McDonald’s is essentially unheard-of. (What’s next: Walmart? Berkshire Hathaway?) It’s a way to slip his aesthetics into the global mainstream through ads and products, and also something that doesn’t exist in music anymore: physical distribution locations. (There are over 13,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the United States.)
In exchange, McDonald’s gets some refracted cool and the satisfaction of knowing that thousands of young people might find their way — through the co-branded merchandise — into becoming walking billboards, especially crucial given that while McDonald’s remains among the most valuable fast-food restaurant brands on the planet, with total global revenue of around $21 billion each of the last two years, it’s still a business in overall decline, from a high of $28 billion in 2013. Partnering with Scott is a way to advertise to young people without all the burdens and potential misfires of actually advertising to young people.
It would all be so sinister, so savagely instrumental, if it weren’t so effective. The range of products in the merchandise drop is frankly staggering. There are umpteen T-shirts — some insert Scott’s imprint name, Cactus Jack, into the Golden Arches; some are inspired by early 1990s sports aesthetics. There are rugs, a lunchbox, socks, a tie, a $90 McNugget body pillow. As with most of Scott’s merch, it’s well-designed, colorful, playful. The brown work jacket with “Billions and Billions Served” embroidered on the back ($128) could have been right out of a dawn-of-the-’90s Beastie Boys video.
These garments are likely to look better in the rearview a couple of decades from now. Though they’re well-designed, wearing clothing advertising the leading fast-food brand is, in a Sweetgreen era, an unprogressive choice — nostalgia tends to soften capitalist excesses, though.
There’s a television commercial, too, in which an action figure version of Scott — speaking in his real(?) voice — showcases his meal: “same order since back in Houston.” Here, too, a mutual compromise: McDonald’s, potentially still skittish about aligning with a rapper, swaps in an animated version in the ad. (Some franchisees apparently opposed the partnership, citing Scott’s risqué lyrics.)
And Scott retains a bit of personal mystery. From this action figure commercial to his recent concert on the video game Fortnite, he has been moving toward full time avatar territory. He is already among the most reluctant of hip-hop stars, almost never photographed with his eyes engaging the camera. And his voice is generally digitally processed practically beyond recognition, merely shrugging off the texture of reality. He is becoming an A.I. musician long before the algorithms take over.
His aesthetics, though, he’s willing to share. A collaboration at this scale is maybe a final stop before a full-fledged brand of one’s own — a Yeezy or a Fenty. Despite hip-hop’s complete dominance of pop culture, there is still a bit of a lag when it comes to the willingness of large mainstream brands to work with hip-hop stars. It’s still a light shock to see DJ Khaled hawking for Geico, or Snoop Dogg for Corona (or Dunkin’ or the General or Tostitos).
McDonald’s partnership with Scott may well be the savviest music/food pairing since the Starbucks music program, which placed CDs from its Hear Records label next to its registers. Which brings us back to food. There is of course also a Travis Scott Meal, which costs $6 — a specialty burger something like an amped-up Quarter Pounder With Cheese, fries with barbecue sauce and a Sprite — that sadly does not come with a toy. Part of why the Scott/McDonald’s alliance feels different is because of the intimacy of food — it’s one thing to attach a celebrity to a luxury item, but to attach one to a commodity product is a far bolder statement.
A couple of days ago, Scott had a not very socially distanced launch event at a McDonald’s in Downey, Calif. Scott’s buddies wore special shirts made for employees and cheesed for pictures over the griddle.
At the McDonald’s closest to my house on Wednesday, though, there was little hubbub — just another day in the fry-guy trenches. A sign in the outer window featured a glam shot of the meal and referred to it as a “limited time collab.” On the video menu screen inside, a picture of the sandwich appeared next to a scrawled Travis Scott catchphrase: “It’s Lit!” I bought one and can confirm the sandwich tasted … exactly like McDonald’s. I lasted one bite — the Sprite was a deeply necessary palate cleanse.
As merch goes, the Travis Scott Meal is imperfect in that it disappears — you’ve got nothing to show for it apart from oily skin and a mild gastric hangover. As a collector, I was much more interested in the grill slip, the small, grease-mottled piece of paper stuck to the top of the box that indicates a special order, and which was marked “The Travis Scott.” It is peak ephemera, utilitarian debris of a peculiar cultural moment. I threw out the sandwich, and pocketed the slip.