One of the largest put-downs about Rap and Hip Hop music from outsiders is that the expletive-filled lyrics make it nothing more than “swears with a beat”. After all, the vocabulary of the greatest rapper must pale in comparison to the likes of William Shakespeare? Well, maybe not.
Matt Daniels, a data scientist and coder for Undercurrent, has put together an interactive chart comparing the vocabulary between 85 different rap artists. Placement on the chart is determined by the percentage of unique words among each artist’s first 35,000 lyrics. Through this method, Daniels believes that “prolific artists, such as Jay-Z, could be compared to newer artists, such as Drake.” Also included in the comparison are famous rappers of the 80’s and 90’s such as 2-Pac, Run DMC, Salt-n-Pepa, and Cypress Hill.
Thrown into the mix are literary titans William Shakespeare and Herman Melville. Daniels takes the first 5,000 words from seven of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays while 35,000 words of Melville come from his Moby Dick. Much to the chagrin of literary snobs everywhere, neither author is at the top of the list.
That honor instead belongs to East Coast born and West Coast based Aesop Rock with 7,392 unique words. Coming in dead last is DMX with 3,214 though Daniels emphasizes that his place “shouldn’t undermine an artist whose raw energy and honesty were the most memorable qualities of his music.” Melville’s tally came at 6,022, outdoing Shakespeare’s total of 5,170.
In regards to East Coast versus West Coast, the top is dominated by East Coast rappers while West Coast occupy most of the middle and a little of the bottom. Interestingly enough, four of the top ten rappers are members of the Wu-Tang Clan while the Clan as a whole occupies slot number seven. Surprisingly, Snoop Dog, 2-Pac, and Kanye all fell below average on the scale. Again, Daniels is careful to point out that relative simplicity in lyrics is not to be looked down on. On the contrary, simplifying one’s words can be seen as an effective tactic to spread one’s message to as many people as possible.