Vocabulary in Hip Hop
Matt Daniels is a designer, coder, and data scientist living in New York City. His past works include the Etymology of “Shorty” and Outkast, in graphs and charts. He decided to examine the vocabulary of hip hop artists, and this is what he found. – May 2014
Literary elites love to rep Shakespeare’s vocabulary: across his entire corpus, he uses 28,829 words, suggesting he knew over 100,000 words and arguably had the largest vocabulary, ever.
I decided to compare this data point against the most famous artists in hip hop. I used each artist’s first 35,000 lyrics. That way, prolific artists, such as Jay-Z, could be compared to newer artists, such as Drake.
# of Unique words used within artist’s first 35,000 lyrics
(1)(2) I used the first 5,000 words for 7 of Shakespeare’s works: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Macbeth, As You Like It, Winter’s Tale, and Troilus and Cressida. For Melville, I used the first 35,000 words of Moby Dick.
All lyrics are provided by Rap Genius, but are only current to 2012. My lack of recent data prevented me from using quite a few current artists.
This data viz uses code by Amelia Bellamy-Royds’s in this jsfiddle.
All ArtistsView by RegionJust
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moby dick 2
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35,000 words covers 3-5 studio albums and EPs. I included mixtapes if the artist was just short of the 35,000 words. Quite a few rappers don’t have enough official material to be included (e.g., Biggie, Kendrick Lamar). As a benchmark, I included data points for Shakespeare and Herman Melville, using the same approach (35,000 words across several plays for Shakespeare, first 35,000 of Moby Dick).
I used a research methodology called token analysis to determine each artist’s vocabulary. Each word is counted once, so pimps, pimp, pimping, and pimpin are four unique words. To avoid issues with apostrophes (e.g., pimpin’ vs. pimpin), they’re removed from the dataset. It still isn’t perfect. Hip hop is full of slang that is hard to transcribe (e.g., shorty vs. shawty), compound words (e.g., king shit), featured vocalists, and repetitive choruses.
It’s still directionally interesting. Of the 85 artists in the dataset, let’s take a look at who is on top.
When I first published this analysis, I excluded Aesop Rock, figuring he was too obscure. The Reddit hip hop community was in uproar, claiming Aesop would absolutely be #1. Sure enough, Aesop Rock is well-above every artist in my dataset and I was obliged to add him to the chart. In fact, his datapoint is so far to the right that he should be off the chart (I’m lazy and didn’t adjust the scale).
#2, #6, #7, #9, #20, and #23
wu-tang clan aint nothin ta fuck wit
Wu-Tang Clan at #6 is fucking impressive given that 10 members, with vastly different styles, are equally contributing lyrics. Add the fact that GZA, Ghostface, Raekwon, and Method Man’s solo works are also in the top 20 – notably, GZA at #2. Perhaps their countless hours of studio time together (and RZA’s mentorship) exposed each rapper’s vocabulary to one another.
Let’s take a deeper look at Wu-Tang five studio albums to better understand each member’s contribution. Here’s a breakdown of the number and percent of words used by each member.
To understand each rapper’s vocabulary (# of unique words) in Wu-Tang’s first five albums, I chose a 3,500 word threshold so that each person was on an equal footing. That way, we could include GZA, but unfortunately had to exclude Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Cappadonna, and Masta Killa, who have too few verses across Wu-Tang’s corpus.
U-God and GZA clearly bolster the group’s average. Raekwon and Method Man’s contributions have a lower average compared to other members, but recognize that their data points would exceed most artists in hip hop.
#3 – 5
Kool Keith, Canibus, Cunninlynguists
Moving past Wu-Tang’s dominance, the next three artists are relatively not as well-known. Of the three, Kool Keith has the most diverse vocabulary. For a taste of his work, check out his album with the largest vocab: Dr. Octagonecologyst. #2 and #3 are two relatively underground (yet accomplished) acts: Jamaican-born rapper Canibus and southern-based group CunninLyguists.
#14 – 15
Outkast and E-40
Of course E-40 is in the top 20; he’s considered to be the inventor of much slang. Just a few that he’s been responsible for: all good, pop ya collar, shizzle, and you feel me.
At #15, Outkast’s deep vocabulary is definitely a function of their style: frequent use of portmanteau (e.g., ATLiens, Stankonia), southern drawl (e.g., nahmsayin, ery’day), and made-up slang (e.g., flawsky-wawsky).
As expected, other southern-based acts aren’t in Outkast’s league. Take a look at the regional break-out below:
The south has the lowest average (4,268) and the east-coast the highest (4,804). In fact, only 4 of the 17 southern-based artists in the dataset are above average. My guess is that this is a function of crunk music’s call-and-response style, resulting in more repetition of words.
#26 and #33
busta rhymes and Twista
Since both rappers are known for their speed, it’s nice to see that their verses are just as lyrically diverse as their peers.
And skipping ahead to the bottom of the dataset…
#67, #68, #71, and #72
snoop dogg, 2pac, Kanye west, and lil wayne
Some of the biggest names in hip hop were in the bottom 20%. Let’s take another look at the data:
While Lil Wayne has never been celebrated for the complexity of his word choices, I expected 2pac, Snoop, and Kanye to be well above average.
It’s also worth noting that Drake, one of the most popular artists of late, is #83 on this list.
At #85 and in last place: DMX. But this shouldn’t undermine an artist whose raw energy and honesty were the most memorable qualities of his music.
So what’s all this mean?
io9 writer Robert Gonzalez blew my mind with this point, “On The Black Album track ‘Moment of Clarity,’ Jay-Z contrasts his lyricism with that of Common and Talib Kweli (both of whom “rank” higher than him, when it comes to the diversity of their vocabulary):
I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars
They criticized me for it, yet they all yell “holla”
If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be
Lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did 5 mil – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since
Article written by –@matthew_daniels http://rappers.mdaniels.com.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/