“There’s a shadow in the dark” —KAINA, “Ghost”
Certain songs follow you. The relationship between yourself and the track extends from the music “sticking” or becoming a playlist favorite. Others boast a haunting quality. That is, they quietly root themselves in your psyche and crop up at the foreground of your mind when you’re least expecting them. These are the songs you suddenly start hearing throughout the day, unprompted. These are the songs you hear in your head before bed, when you’re idly working, or when you start to get anxious. Or maybe that’s just me.
Either way, there’s an art to this ghostly music. From the lyrics to the atmosphere, haunting tunes creep alongside us because of a very unique and piercing structure. Most music heads can attest to having at least one line imprinted on their minds from a particular album—if not droves of lines from hoards of albums. Looking at tracks by fast-rising Chicago singer-songwriter KAINA, the late Mac Miller, and the venerable Frank Ocean, we can break down the crux of what keeps these songs stuck in our heads long after we’ve pressed pause on the music.
From the canons of Kai, Mac, and Frank, three lines haunt me in my day-to-day. KAINA’s aptly titled “Ghost” boasts the lyric “There’s a ghost in my heart…,” which rings through my subconscious without much effort. Though Mac’s discography is deep and daring, the opening track on 2014’s Faces, “Should’ve died already, Faces,” bubbles up in my thoughts when I’m doing anything ranging from the banal to the labor-intensive. As for Frank, “White Ferrari” standout bar “That was my part of my deal, honest” quite literally attacks my good sense. The line makes me well up with emotion, even as I am listening to other tracks.
These lyrics are so striking because they’re not heady, yet they communicate the immense depth of emotion. Take Frank’s heartbreaking assertion that he will still love his partner regardless of if they are together or not. To structure love as a “deal” is crushing in the best way, but he need not expound upon the sensation. He merely has to speak to us. We can say the same for Mac and KAINA, whose lyrics play in the realm of profound isolation and sorrow. Both artists deliver these plain-stated bars, which are intensely bare, and consequently, they imprint upon us easily.
Then, there’s the syntax of these lyrics. Each line boasts a moment to catch your breath and let the words truly sink in. Look at the comma placement on Frank’s line. The vocoder-delivered “honest” comes after a crucial pause, which makes the final word sound all the more finite and shattering. KAINA lets her bar trail off into an emotive abyss, leaving us stranded and isolated with only the afterimage of her hazy vocal as our faulty footing. Mac—albeit sounding incensed—uses the comma in much the same way as Frank. The pause is a stage-setter. In the blip of dead space, we find ourselves concluding that he is within an inch of his life. What could be more haunting?
The ghostly atmosphere of each song lends itself to sticking to our passive memory. In the case of KAINA, it does not sound as if her vocals are too far back in the mix or puncturing the mix. Instead, her voice is crystalized, shattered with a hammer, and sprinkled all over the mix. It’s as if she is mimicking a sea of twinkling stars. There is an attractive effervescence to her singing, and the haze of her delivery communicates her pain well. A ballooning quality to her vocal gives us the impression the ghost in her heart is overtaking her whole being. By proxy, the lyric overtakes us as well.
In that same vein, Frank’s “White Ferrari” has an effacing quality. The track sounds bleach-white and overwhelming. Too, the pace of the track lends itself to haunting aftermath as it slowly advances upon us with a peeling sheen. The hollowed-out quality of the vocals gives us the impression Frank has been positively gutted. There’s a dazzling, almost terrifying sensation to the music as it washes over you, especially as the song progresses and we find ourselves lost in a field of wounded vocoder delivery. Everything coalesces, making the final delivery of Frank’s line wrenching.
Meanwhile, Mac’s “Inside Outside” sounds janky in the best way, mimicking the structure and form of a rundown haunted house. You know the type: washed-out purple exterior, looming windows, cracking spires, a mossy cobblestone path leading up to a creaking front door. Everything about the house screams danger, but you can’t look away. That is Mac Miller’s technical and clobbering “Inside Outside,” a masterclass in terrifying us emotionally while intriguing our ear. The blend leads to many a day spent hearing “Should’ve died already, Faces” during the most empty and unassuming of moments.
There’s an art to ringing through our heads as we do dishes or walk to the subway. These three tracks—these three lines—have the propensity to float above our subconscious more than most. Beyond being catchy songs off expertly crafted albums, these cuts invade our passive space. They arrest us when we least expect them. Not to be confused with lasting music, which we seek out, haunting music seeks us. These songs stay with us even as new music permeates our moods. They’re on emotive tenure. These are the songs flicking at the reddened nerve of our anxieties until we appreciate the pain. These songs consume us. These songs become us.