When musicians say, “It’s really a full circle moment for me,” they’re not usually talking about a fish sandwich diss track.
But here we are — two decades after a then-burgeoning Pusha T rapped his way into jingle immortality with McDonald’s’ “I’m Lovin’ It” campaign — and that’s how the battle-tested Virginia rapper describes his latest project.
On the new Arby’s commercial “Spicy Fish Diss,” premiering today, Pusha T takes aim at McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich to shill for a competitor. On the surface, it makes for one of hip-hop’s silliest, most corporate quote-unquote beefs — famous rapper gets paid a ton to promote one mass-marketed product by dissing another. In fact, the sometime Clipse MC says this track and its backstory hold significant financial and personal lessons for him, serving as a cautionary tale on less frivolous topics such as song ownership and sync rights.
But dessert is always the best course, so let’s eat that first. The wacky ad blends lines you might hear on a proper Pusha T record (“I could sell water to a whale/How could you ever think I’d fail”) with ruthless targeted attacks against Mickey D’s (“Filet-o-Fish is shit/And you should be disgusted”). The ad overlays surreal images of a clown holding bags of money, a sailboat sinking into the ocean, and a close-up, slow-motion shot of a bear eating a fish. The tone is firmly tongue-in-cheek, in line with the quasi-Shakespearean, cool-hunting Twitter wars that many fast-food companies have undertaken in recent years.
Ever since the start of his career, the former Clipse star has positioned himself as one of rap’s low-key greatest businessmen, aligning himself with artists and brands for a small fortune. In 2016, industry vet Steve Stoute shocked the industry when he claimed that Pusha T and his brother Malice (who now raps under the name No Malice) were the writers behind McDonald’s ubiquitous “I’m Lovin’ It” jingle in 2003, alongside Pharrell Williams and Justin Timberlake. The company had already paid Timberlake $6 million to record his song, “I’m Lovin’ It,” on which the jingle is based. (Pusha’s role in writing the jingle has since been disputed by others.)
Back then, Clipse had just released their debut album Lord Willin’, and were still working toward getting a stable foothold in the industry. Pusha says now that he was paid a one-time fee but no royalties for what would become the longest-running marketing campaign in the company’s 82-year history. “I am solely responsible for the ’I’m Lovin‘ It’ swag and the jingle of that company,” he tells Rolling Stone. “That’s just real. I am the reason. Now I gotta crush it.”
He laughs and adds, “I did it at a very young age at a very young time in my career where I wasn’t asking for as much money and ownership. It’s something that’s always dug at me later in life like, ‘Dammit, I was a part of this and I should have more stake.’ It was like half a million or a million dollars for me and my brother — but that’s peanuts for as long as that’s been running. I had to get that energy off me, and this [ad] was the perfect way to get that energy like, ‘You know what? I’m over it.’”
The partnership is not without precedent for the rapper, who sorta kinda linked with Arby’s in 2018, when their “We Have the Meats” campaign licensed Yogi and Skrillex’s 2014 EDM hit “Burial” featuring the rapper. Despite his actual voice not appearing in the ad, Pusha confirmed he owns 40 percent of the track and gets paid every time it airs to this day .
“I had a lot of obscure collaborations in the EDM space,” he says. “For whatever reason, a lot of EDM acts felt my voice cut through the chaos and the intensity of the music … I’ve always been known for hardcore raps, but a big part of my business has always been the sync business.”
Deals like that make fiscal sense for him, he continues: “Doing those types of songs, I usually require a high percentage of ownership. I do that because that style of music is very conducive to commercials. And regardless of what part they take of the song – whether it’s my voice or not – I own what I own.”
The ownership component is as crucial for Pusha, if not more so, than any cultural impact from a corporate ad placement. His last actual diss track — the personal, crushing “Story of Adidon,” which accused Drake of being a “deadbeat” father “hiding a child” — caused a nuclear-level impact in hip-hop.
“We had a good time [with ‘Adidon’], but I’m over it,” he says when the subject comes up. “I’m the first-ever fish sandwich diss ever, and I should go down in history for that.”
Pusha laughs again. “I hope [‘Spicy Fish Diss’] has more cultural impact [than ‘Adidon’], ‘cause that’s gonna go direct to my pocket.”