Hits Decoded: 3 elements that define Kanye West’s “Ghost Town”

Kanye West is a man whose name means many things to many different people.

Throughout the course of his career, he’s been a cocky kid with a pink polo and a backpack, a political pariah, a KUWTK recluse, and a musical visionary. In my opinion, there’s one more label that applies to him: he’s the greatest producer of all time. I loved his latest album, Ye, and it will now be my distinct pleasure to break down 3 elements that define the album’s strongest track, “Ghost Town.”

1. Sample Chops

“With Ye back choppin,’ the cars and the women come with options.”

Shirley Ann Lee – “Someday”

In keeping with his theme of gospel and religious sample material, Kanye lifts the track’s intro from Shirley Ann Lee’s “Someday,” giving it to PARTYNEXTDOOR for re-interpretation (more on that later). Although PARTYNEXTDOOR twists the lyrics around a bit, the original version of this recording highlights a very interesting parallel. Shirley Ann Lee stops singing and begins to engage in a conversation 39 seconds into the recording:

“Or look, uh, have you thought that maybe, uh, we could use music for fill in on a lot of this?”

“Yeah, that-“

“Uh, just do that and then let the music do something, then do that again, that’d be enough for a record.”

“Mhm.”

“I mean, you only want two and a half minutes if you can get it, you know, three minutes maximum. So, if you consider that if you did that, just like you did there, and then let some music play a chorus of it and then you come over again and go out, that would be good enough.”

Full lyrics are avaialable on Genius.

Just as Kanye has distinguished himself by releasing “unfinished” or raw-sounding records, the end of this recording includes Lee talking with someone, perhaps a manager or A&R, about how to finish the song. Could Kanye have taken inspiration for his forward-thinking release strategy from the past?

The Royal Jesters – “Take Me For A Little While”

This sample, from Chicano soul outfit The Royal Jesters, gives “Ghost Town” nearly all of its melodic content. The euphoric organ chops provide a dynamic bed for Kanye’s characteristic distorted electric guitar leads, which have returned to prominence on his Wyoming beats.

2. Vocal Features

Getting the best out of the artists you’re collaborating with is part of being a great producer. This is, of course, a little easier when you can call up the greatest artists in the world and fly them out to Jackson Hole on a whim. Still, Kanye has a knack for evoking fantastic performances from his features, a talent he displays to the fullest on “Ghost Town.”

070 Shake

“I put my hand on the stove to see if I still bleed
And nothing hurts anymore, I feel kinda free”

Recent G.O.O.D. signee 070 Shake’s verse/outro might be the most memorable moment on the entire album. The entire second half of the arrangement is devoted to Shake’s reflections on the concepts of pain and freedom, belted out over a sparsely arranged, marching drum beat. Whether or not your hand will actually bleed if you put it on the stove, however, remains a contentious issue.

PARTYNEXTDOOR

“Someday, someday, someday,
I wanna lay down, like God did, Sunday”

The track opens with PARTYNEXTDOOR performing a loose, stream-of-consciousness riff, loosely based on the Shirley Ann Lee sample it follows. PARTYNEXTDOOR’s vocal doodling, fitting the casual, unfinished aesthetic of the album, provides a sense of vulnerability, as though the listener is in the studio with the vocalists listening to Kanye and the team bouncing ideas around.

Kid Cudi

“I’ve been trying to make you love me,
But everything I try takes you further from me”

The chorus in “Ghost Town” consists of longtime Kanye collaborator/protégé Kid Cudi crooning a passage from The Royal Jesters record that comprises the majority of the instrumental’s melodic content. It’s difficult to discern exactly who’s the subject here, but some of our friends at Genius have opined (and I’m inclined to agree) that the hook is meant to be understood as coming from, and directed, at Kanye himself.

3. Lyrical Content

Although Kanye’s political antics have (once again) largely dominated public responses to his album, the most salient themes present across the record deal with more personal topics – depression, self-love, self-harm, acceptance, vulnerability, and free thought. Kanye is at his best when he’s at his most intimate, when he’s feeling empowered to share his inmost self. This means that his lyrics are contradictory at times, and it often gets the artist in hot water.

“Years ahead but way behind
I’m on one, two, three, four, five
No half-truths, just naked minds
Caught between space and time”

Kanye’s determination to embrace free thought informs the song’s (and the entire album’s) sensibilities. Specifically, critics and fans have been irritated with Kanye for releasing music that seems “unfinished.” They’re right in a sense – both Ye and Pablo have featured literally unfinished tracks. Even Shake’s part, regarded by many critics and fans as the highlight of the entire record, was finished on the same day it came out.

But that’s the point – it ended up being the most affecting part of the whole thing! “Ghost Town” isn’t successful because it’s the most well-written or best-produced Kanye West song ever. It’s successful because whether his listeners like it or not, Kanye is being true to himself.

June 25, 2018

Max Rewak Max Rewak is a record producer, audio engineer, and music writer, based in New York and currently working in Sounds content at Splice.