A Decade of Ye
Casey Johnston
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I’ma Let You Finish, But This is the Greatest Kanye West Song of All Time

The problem with trying to find the greatest song in a great artist’s catalog is that you keep banging your head against a wall. Like, fuck, this artist has so many great songs. He even released a new one TODAY! How do I pick?

But the more I think about Kanye West’s music and try to find that song, the one song, the definitive song, the song that unequivocally screams— hey, this is the greatest song— the more confused I get. But I think I got it now.

Kanye West’s greatest song, in my opinion, is “Touch The Sky.”

I just listened to every song Kanye West has ever made— even songs he doesn’t even know he’s made, because the internet— and I think I can reasonably surmise that “Touch the Sky” really is it. It’s just that good.

Before I get into why, let me tell you a personal story, partly because I want to make myself feel important and partly because it’s gonna make some sense at the end.

I actually heard “Touch the Sky” about two years before it came out. I was at Baseline Recording Studios interviewing the producer Just Blaze for an unrelated article and we were just kinda bullshitting and he said, “Hey, wanna hear this new Kanye shit I just did?”

I nodded yes, at which point he hooked up his iPod— remember iPods?— to the Digidesign Control 24 console in the studio’s B room and cranked the volume. When you’re in studios, people invariably turn up music to obscenely loud levels to disguise the fact that what you are hearing is most likely really terrible.

But with “Touch the Sky,” that was not the case at all. The minute I heard the opening horns, sampled from Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up,” I remember thinking, holy shit, this may be one of the greatest songs I have ever heard in my life. And I still feel that way.

When you’re a music critic or serious music person or someone who just has to think about music a lot, you wind up spending all sorts of time analyzing things and trying to reason why something sounds the way it does. What is the artist trying to say? What does this really mean? Who wrote and produced this thing? Where does this song fit into the larger framework of this artist’s catalog?

Honestly, that’s what being a professional music person is all about. But none of that shit really matters if the song doesn’t feel right, because so much of music, which is a visceral thing— you hear it, after all — is about what your instinctual reaction to it is. So, I always try to imagine that I’m still 12-years-old and that my capacity to think about music in a very intellectual way is sort of limited. That’s the age when all music is special to you, because you don’t really know anything yet.

And, wow, “Touch the Sky” just feels so amazing. You don’t even really need to listen to the lyrics, because the way it grooves is simply perfect. And there is, undoubtedly, the theme of the song, which in hindsight is not the most complicated thing on earth, but there’s no rule in the book that great art must be. To wit, the chorus:

I gotta testify
Come up in the spot lookin’ extra fly
‘Fore the day I die, I’mma touch the sky
Gotta testify
come up in the spot lookin’ extra fly
‘Fore the day I die, I’mma touch the sky

This is obviously not Bob Dylan-caliber poetry here, but again, maybe on some level it really shows how simple things need to be to make a salient point. The chorus taps into an aspirational vein that courses through an entire generation of young people (and old people, too).

If you think about it, the song was a little ahead of its time. In fact, the words “Touch the Sky” almost sound like something a proverbial Don Draper would come up with for a 60s-era TWA ad campaign. And even now, you see stuff like this— the tag line for Grey Goose vodka is literally, “Fly Beyond.”

“Touch the Sky” is a song that is essentially about Kanye’s struggle— not having money for things; having to wait outside the club to get in; what he would do to pretend he’d made already made it, and doubts about ever making it.

But these are our struggles, too. Anyone who has ever endeavoured to do anything great with their life has had similar thoughts. Most of us, unless we are born into it, spend a large portion of our time outside the club— i.e. the ‘cool people’ club, the elite club, the chummy club of people who appear to have life figured out— putting on a front like we’re in when we’re not, and doubting whether we’ll ever get in anyway. This is our modern society in a nutshell.

That’s just the intellectual part of it though, me thinking about the deeper meaning of the song and all that jazz. If the song didn’t feel the way it did, if the melody wasn’t as memorable, if the drums weren’t as percussive and didn’t cause some sort of emotional response within me, if I didn’t want to literally repeat the words along with Kanye, I don’t think “Touch the Sky” would be just as great as it is.

I love a lot of Kanye’s music and feel very strongly about many of his songs. And even though a lot of them make me feel some kind of way, there isn’t quite another in the catalog that gives me the same feeling as “Touch the Sky.”

Even until this very day, I think, before the day I die, I’m gonna touch the sky. Maybe I never really will. But for four minutes in an otherwise unremarkable and maybe even forgettable life, I feel like I can. And that’s why “Touch the Sky” is the greatest.