Background and composition
"The Greatest" is a surf rock torch song with a total running time of 5 minutes, playing at appoximately 80 beats per minute in the key of D minor. The track opens with guitars before Del Rey begins the first verse accompanied by piano. As the song progresses to the first chorus, vocal harmonies, drums, guitars and strings are introducted to the instrumentation. A drum break then leads the song into a 30 second electric guitar solo. The second verse returns to stripped back instrumentation, with a piano, single guitar and light drums before returning to the full instrumentation in the second chorus. The outro features Del Rey singing multiple harmonies over guitar and piano which slowly draw the song to a close.
The lyrics make multiple references to various musicians and songs, including The Beach Boys' "Kokomo", David Bowie's "Life on Mars" and Kanye West. The song focuses on Del Rey lamenting how she misses a former flame in California, her old friends in New York and her previously uncomplicated life. It also brings in themes of worldwide poltical unrest, Millenial and Generation X culture, and the 2019 California wildfires which are featured in the background of the Norman Fucking Rockwell album cover.
On July 26, 2019, Del Rey announced the song via Instagram along with "Fuck It, I Love You". Co-producer and co-writer Jack Antonoff tweeted on July 31, 2019 that "The Greatest" was his favorite song on Norman Fucking Rockwell.