Yep, you read that right. While rap music is generally presented as a form of street poetry and therefore more urban than urbane, many modern rap artists are not about just about the glories of the “thug life” or offering the typical expletive-laced boasts, taunts, and verbal beatdowns.
Matt Daniels, a designer and coder living in New York, has a couple of intriguing personal projects including the etymology of of the term “shorty” in hip-hop and also an in-depth look at the rap group Outkast (in conjunction with their recent reunion). Daniels’s latest project is inspired by the literati who frequently champion William Shakespeare as having the largest vocabulary of all time. (Check this out for Shakespeare’s mind-blowing text stats.) Daniels decided to see if he could discover who in the world of rap music has the largest vocabulary, and to make things even more interesting, he put Shakespeare and Herman Melville into the mix.
For Shakespeare, Daniels used the first 5,000 words for Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Macbeth, As You Like It, Winter’sTale, and Troilus and Cressida. For Melville, he used the first 35,000 words of Moby Dick. He then pitched them against a selection of the biggest names in rap, taking the words from the first 35,000 songs for each artist and using an analysis methodology called token analysis to measure the vocabulary of the rap artists.
I must say the results didn’t surprise me that much: Aesop Rock came out on top and by a wide margin too (almost 1,000 words more than the runner-up). Aesop who? Don’t worry if you said that out loud. Daniels actually left Aesop Rock out of the analysis at first, but thanks to strong feedback from hip-hop loving Redditors, Aesop Rock proved to the heavyweight champion of the world when it comes to literate rap. If you haven’t heard Aesop Rock before, check out the video below.
There’s also another unsurprising pattern when I cross-reference the results to my music collection: most of the rap artists that I listen to – Beastie Boys, The Roots, Nas, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, LL Cool J – are in the upper half of the the chart (although I do so love my Run DMC and Missy Elliot albums). But the fact extremely popular artists like Eminem, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, and Kanye West all used about 4,500 words or less suggests either: 1. Rap fans are generally linguistically challenged, and rappers have to dumb it down for them; or 2. The most popular rap artists are generally linguistically challenged; or 3. All of the above.
Before you pull out your nine and bust a cap in my posterior end, check out some of the rap and hip-hop related stuff we have for you at the Public Libraries. (And somebody please get Kanye, Fiddy, and the rest of them a dictionary.)