Waxing Lyrical

Matt Daniels, a New York-based designer, coder and data scientist, recently examined the vocabulary of hip hop artists to see how many unique words could be found in rap songs. Daniels says that “literary elites love to rep Shakespeare’s vocabulary”, and the Bard uses 28,289 words across all of his works. In his study, Daniels used the first 5,000 words from 7 of Shakespeare’s works, and the first 35,000 lyrics of various hip hop artists. Shakespeare came in 16th place, being beaten by the likes of Ghostface Killah and Wu-Tang Clan.

Unsurprisingly, artists like DMX and 50 Cent are among the rappers with the least original vocabulary, whereas rappers like Nas and Common are higher up. At the end of his analysis, Daniels quotes ‘Moment of Clarity’, in which Jay Z, who does not rank particularly highly on Daniels’ list, admits “I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars”. Critics have pointed out that this is certainly evident on Jay Z’s latest album, ‘Magna Carta Holy Grail’, with Jesse Cataldo accusing the rapper of putting in less creative effort because of his financial success.

Right at the top of Daniels’s list are relatively unknown artists like Aesop Rock, GZA, RZA and Killah Priest, who have not received as much commercial success as Drake, for example, who ranks third from last for original vocabulary. It would seem, from this data, that there is a need for hip hop artists to ‘dumb down’ their lyrics, or repeat themselves, if they want to top charts.

However, this does not necessarily mean that there is a deterioration of quality in popular hip hop today. Neither Kanye West nor 2Pac rank particularly highly on the list, but are responsible for intelligent and commercially successful songs like ‘All Falls Down’ and ‘Changes’. So, even though Jay Z may feel like he has sold out and Daniels’ research suggests that rap with diverse vocabulary is unlikely to gain mainstream success, many hip hop artists have shown that it is possible to say a lot with few words, while at the same time appealing to a large audience.