May 16, 2011


I Can't Float On, I'll Float On

Lupe Fiasco is the first person to say that he's not crazy about his Top 20 hit "The Show Goes On." In an interview with the Chicago MC in Complex magazine, he says he "didn't have nothing to do with that record... That wasn't like I knew the producer or knew the writer or anything like that. That was one of those records the record company gave me." Still, it's a strangely powerful piece of music, with more staying power than he realized at first (it rose to its peak after initially dropping off the charts), and invisible tendrils extending into the history of rock and R&B.

Let's start by naming some of the other contributors Lupe Fiasco elides over. Its producer is Kane Beatz, whose other records include Trey Songz and Nicki Minaj's "Bottoms Up," as well as Young Money's "BedRock"; the chorus is sung by J.R. Get Money, an Atlanta-based affiliate of T.I.'s label Grand Hustle. And the chorus melody—as well as the song's needling, twitching guitar hook—comes from an unlikely place: Modest Mouse's 2004 modern-rock hit "Float On."

Both Lupe's song and Modest Mouse's are about getting by, pushing on, moving forward, being implacable, taking victories where you can find them. That's true of their careers, too: Modest Mouse didn't really have a commercial breakthrough until the comparatively slick "Float On," recorded a solid decade into a career of steady touring and recording. ("Float On" isn't Modest Mouse's only hip-hop connection, either: OutKast's Big Boi recently tweeted that he's working with them on their long-awaited next album, too.) And as much as Lupe makes it clear that he's frustrated by being an artist who is, as he puts it, "not on the 'A' list at Atlantic Records," he also did go ahead and record "The Show Goes On."

Long before Modest Mouse floated on, the Floaters recorded their own "Float On"—the later song has to be a reference to the earlier one, an exemplar of the kind of ultra-smooth soul of its era.

Replete with references to the band members' star signs, it topped the American soul charts for six weeks in 1977. (Another hip-hop link: Stetsasonic, who wore a variation on the Floaters' all-white outfits, recorded a longer variation on "Float On" on their debut album, 1988's In Full Gear.) And then they, too, ran into music-business trouble, struggling to come up with a follow-up to the hit that had their name in it.

There's also another rock 'n' roll source to Lupe's rap in "The Show Goes On." "Have you ever had the feeling that you was bein' had?" his first verse starts. As he made explicit in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, that's a riff on Johnny Rotten's famous closing words at the final Sex Pistols show, at Winterland in San Francisco in 1978: "Ah-ha-ha. Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" And it's a barely veiled slap at the record-label politics behind the song itself. The Pistols had their own trouble with record labels, of course—"The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle," the title of their posthumous documentary and compilation, partly refers to the fact that they were signed and dropped by EMI (who got a venomous song named after them in return), signed and dropped by A&M, and finally signed to Virgin Records, all within an eight-month period.

The song the Sex Pistols chose to make their final show go off with wasn't one of their own: it was a cover of the Stooges' 1969 rocker "No Fun"—a song that at that historical juncture seemed positively ancient. (It was, in other words, roughly as old then as Modest Mouse's "Float On" is now.)

In some ways, "No Fun" is the inverse of "The Show Goes On." Where Lupe Fiasco's breaking out of his geographical shell ("I was once that little boy/Terrified of the world/Now I'm on a world tour"), the Stooges' singer Iggy Pop winds himself deeper and deeper into isolation, paralysis and stasis—"Maybe go out, maybe stay home." Lupe's hyperverbal; "No Fun" is boiled down to nearly as short a lyric as a rock song has ever pulled off. But Iggy's existential frustration is as potent as Lupe's more concrete irritation with his circumstances. It's their fuming dissatisfaction, the feeling that they've somehow been cheated, that lights the fire under both of them.