It seemed like an April fools prank: Hamburger Helper, that macaroni-adjacent pasta kit you stir into ground beef, dropping a mixtape early Friday morning. Until you clicked the link and saw five tracks of rap music, a good 15 minutes of autotuned vocals, skittering beats, and enough references to making dinner to fill any appetite.
Folks, what are we supposed to make of all this?
I mean, on the one hand, it seems like a blatant attempt by a brand to engrain itself with potential customers. These days, when exposure to so many ads has made people nearly blind to commercials and billboards, brands have to work harder to resonate with potential customers. Take Mountain Dew: it’s new campaign features a monkey that’s also a baby and a dog, a creature that licks a dude’s face and everybody starts dancing. It’s oh so random, and as I’m sure a focus group told a bunch of men in suits, those millennials love their randomness. Monkeycheesespoon am I right, folks?
But on the other hand, I’ve been bumping this mix all weekend and pushing it on my friends. Sure, I’ve also been jonesing for some Philly Cheesesteak Hamburger Helper, but this mixtape is pretty good, way better than you’d think it has any right to be. Indeed, it’s only five tracks, but Hamburger Helper – which Wikipedia tells me is a General Mills company and based out of Minnesota – may have dropped the best mixtape of the year.
According to The Los Angeles Times, the tape is the brainchild of a bunch of local musicians. It started as a joke, but Helper/GM went with it and enlisted a bunch of Minnesota producers and MCs. Most of these people are up-and-coming musicians; Illwin – who’s all over “Crazy,” my favourite song on the tape – holds a side job at the Mall of America. Others, like Retro Spectro, already have a strong following online (over 380,000 followers on Twitter as of this writing).
Over it’s five tracks, Watch the Stove is packed with good beats and great lyrics. The hook on “Crazy” is downright catchy and Illwin’s line “that burger gunna go ham,” is already on the shortlist for best lyric of the year, although also enjoy him comparing himself to the Hamburgler.
Meanwhile, “Hamburger Helper” has a slow, tense beat and Retro Spectro rhyming off nursery rhymes and saying “Hamburger Helper is all that I eat,” eating boxes by the dozen.
At five tracks the mixtape doesn’t overstay it’s welcome: it’s sort of a joke and it doesn’t try to take things too far. Still: the work and effort that went into this is obvious even on a first listen. This isn’t just a brand trying something to be relevant and it’s not a one-off joke. Even though everything here is all about a food product, several of these songs are as good as anything I’ve heard this year. To be completely honest, I’ve listened to it more times than I have Purple Reign.
Where this tape really takes things to another level is it’s rollout. From a Kanye-referencing, hand-written tracklist posted a few days before, to the 1-800-HOTLEANBEEF graphic in the video for “Crazy,” to even it’s title, Watch the Stove is funny and self-aware in a genre that’s increasingly all too serious. Just compare this to Kanye’s messy rollout for The Life of Pablo: although Kanye’s record is better (it’s not even close, and I bet even Lefty would agree), only one of these will leave you with a huge, dopey grin on your face.
Which, ultimately is the reason why I’m even writing anything about a mixtape dropped by Lefty, a corporate mascot for a brand based out of Minnesota. Sure, Watch the Stove is really an advertisement of a sort, but I don’t know if I’ve ever enjoyed an ad as much as I’m enjoying Watch the Stove. Go give it a spin, break out a box of Crunchy Taco and start frying some ground beef.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.