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Who has the biggest vocabulary in hip-hop? While We’re Waiting

Triumph Lyrics Wu-Tang Clan

Hi, Cleveland! How’s everyone doing? Hanging in there? Overwhelmed by Cavs dissention and snow and our country’s current political state? Me too.

In all honesty, I’ve taken to avoiding a lot of social media as of late. I’m (vocally) quite liberal and also incredibly emotionally charged. One too many posts involving the actions and effects of President Cheeto Monster, and I find myself weeping over my iPad. Lately, the Cavs haven’t been there for me to serve as a happy little distraction. It’s just horrible news bite after horrible news bite—with about a foot of snow on top.

Taking a step away from inundating myself with all that awfulness has been pretty wonderful… except when it hasn’t been. I’m talking about the times I miss all the other stuff we come to the internet for: Corgi videos, shocking pregnancy announcements (I see you, Bey), and general, all-around amazing stuff shared by our friends and family members.

Such was the case Tuesday afternoon when a co-worker stopped by my office. “Oh. My. God. Have you seen this?!” she squeaked, laptop in hand. She shared with me then what I’ll share with you now, an interactive infographic that measure who has the largest vocabulary in hip-hop:

Screen Shot 2017-02-01 at 7.44.19 PM

It’s important to note that I work in the creative department of a marketing-communications agency. We create infographics every day, and often share amongst ourselves other interesting and inspiring examples we find. Never have I seen anything this cool.

Check the full version here. It’s amazing.

Created by Matt Daniels for Polygraph, the infographic measures how many unique (i.e. different) words were used within 85 rappers’ first 35,000 lyrics. From Daniels:

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. 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).

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.

Matt Daniels, you are doing the Lord’s work. Not only does he offer the option of viewing the results color-coded by region, Daniels also includes plot points for William Shakespeare and Herman Melville as benchmarks. I know what you’re thinking… what?!

Let’s examine some interesting finds among the rappers measured, from the obscure to the expected to the big surprises:

No. 1 – Aesop Rock

I’ll confess two things immediately: I’ve never heard of Aesop Rock before this, and I’m incredibly uncool. I’m assuming those two facts are intertwined. I was intrigued, though, after reading from Daniels that he had originally excluded Aesop Rock from the study, assuming he was too obscure. The Reddit hip-hop community quickly clamored for Aesop Rock’s inclusion, and they were right—he actually scored so far to the right, Daniels claims that the 40-year-old, Portland-based freestyle rapper would be off the chart.

A sampling from Aesop Rock’s “Daylight,” 2001:
Yoput one up shackle me, not clean logic procreation
I did not invent the wheel I was the crooked spoke adjacent
While the triple sixers lassos keep angels roped in the basement
I walk the block with a halo and a stick poking your patience

Nos. 2, 6, 7, 9, 20, and 23 – Wu-Tang Clan

I think the key finding here is that nobody should challenge the vocabulary of any Wu-Tang Member EVER. Four of the top 10 rankings being given to members of the Wu-Tang collective. Raekwon and Method Man, whose averages are lower than other Wu-Tang members, still exceed most artists in hip-hop. One could assume that, given all the time they spent collaborating, members of Wu-Tang exposed each other to their vocabularies, including new words and ideas, gradually building a more sweeping shared vernacular.  Ghostface Killah, I had no idea you were so well read.

Screen Shot 2017-02-01 at 7.55.55 PM

Nos. 26 and 33 – Busta Rhymes and Twista

Though more often recognized for their speed, Daniels points out that both Busta and Twista are just as lyrically diverse—if not more so—than many of their peers. Unrelated, but I’ll point out the Busta Rhymes leads all rappers for having been spotted by me at The Fountainbleau Hotel in Miami Beach. He also ranks No. 1 for having his body guard yell at me for taking a photo of him.

A sampling from Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See,” 1997:
Hit you with no delaying so what you sayin yo
Silly with my nine milli, what the deally yo
When I be on the mic yes I do my duty yo
Wild up in the club like we wild in the studio

No. 67, 68, 71, 72, and 83 – Snoop Dogg, 2PAC, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and Drake

What I found most interesting about Daniels’ research is what became obvious after spending a little time with it: some of the most popular artists in hip-hop were in the bottom 20 percent for lyric differentiation. As Daniels points out, no one celebrates Lil Wayne for the complexity of his word choices. But I expected other names, especially guys like Yeezy, to rank far above average. No matter what West thinks of himself, however, numbers are like buckets: They don’t lie.

A sampling from Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky,” 2005:
Take ’em back to the plan…
Me and my momma hopped in the U-Haul van.
Any pessimists I ain’t talked to them,
Plus, I ain’t have no phone in my apartment.

No. 85 – DMX

Someone has to come in last, right? I wasn’t super surprised to see good ol’ DMX ranked toward the bottom of the list, but I’m not sure I would have expected him to be dead last. I hadn’t considered it, but Daniels points out that though lyrically simple, DMX’s music is memorable for its “raw energy and honesty,” and I definitely think he’s right. Listen to “Party Up” and don’t find yourself enjoying it, I dare you.  And to be honest, when it came to DMX, the only thing I thought about was that Vine of the llama hopping to the beat of “Party Up.”

A sampling from DMX’s “Party Up,” 1999:
Y’all gon’ make me lose my mind
Up in here, up in here
Y’all gon’ make me go all out
Up in here, up in here
Y’all gon’ make me act a FOOL
Up in HERE, up in here
Y’all gon’ make me lose my cool
Up in here, up in here

As we get ready to take on this Thursday, let’s look to the energetic wisdom of DMX for a little motivation, Cleveland. No matter what happens today, don’t lose your mind. Don’t act a fool and definitely, whatever you do, don’t lose your cool. But if you want to go all out? I say go for it.

Have a great day up in here, you guys.

  • chrisdottcomm

    Was suprised by KRS-One being so middle ground.

  • chrisdottcomm

    jesus christ.

  • Hopwin

    You explanation does make sense and the definition works both ways, but the more common usage is words that you use and understand.

  • Hopwin

    You are really jumping through hoops to try to prove… something.

    At it’s base: To be part of your vocabulary you must choose that word or phrase to represent some concept or feeling you understand.

    If someone else is writing your song then you are a parrot repeating phrases because you heard them, not necessarily because you understand them critically (but you could).

    Shakespeare or anyone else lifting phrases and inserting them into their own works demonstrates
    1) They knew the material
    2) They understood the material to the degree they could incorporate it into their work

    This applies to the countless rappers that include lines from Scarface and the Godfather trilogy. They have internalized those phrases, quotes and words and use them in a context that demonstrates understanding.

    If I read some sick text that you wrote because it sounds good tonally, then it is not part of my vocabulary.

  • Eric G

    Slow down, friends. I’m in no way defending racism, or taking political sides, as I could give af about either “party.” Merely stating that if Obama had been compared to a terribly unhealthy snack, even in jest, based on skin color, it wouldn’t be so easily thrown around, and there might possibly be some blowback.

  • nj0

    You can take passages and insert them into a work without understanding the passage or the words contained within. Ask anyone who has ever graded high school or college papers. Plenty of students borrow material they do not understand. Or rather, they understand as being on topic and fulfilling the assignment.

    In Melville’s case, he did the old copy and paste preciously because he didn’t understand whaling and its jargon. Now, maybe he effectively learned that vocabulary in the process of borrowing, but you could also say that for someone else performing lyrics someone else wrote.

    Exposure does not equal understanding. And maybe we can use that to reach a middle ground of sorts: the study at least shows that these rappers were exposed to vocabularies comparable to Shakespeare and Melville, (though a few caveats can be raised about the methodology of that part as well).

  • maxfnmloans

    As was I. Same with Big Daddy Kane

    related: cripes Im old

  • Eric G

    I find amusing the level of popularity associated with fewer word artists, than what would seemingly be more creative.

  • My point is that if Obama had been compared to a terribly unhealthy snack that it would have marked a drastic improvement in civility over many of the things some folks actually compared him to.

  • Eric G

    I agree, but I doubt those references would be used as openly in a forum such as this.

  • Garry_Owen

    None of that viciousness started with the last administration, though. None of it is productive, either; and none of it adds anything to the public discourse. All of it just adds to the increasing hatred that each side has for the other. I would love for all of it to stop. That was simply the point of my initial comment, which started this conversation.

  • Hopwin
  • Hopwin
  • nj0

    I guess if he understood the meaning of the words and remembered them to the extent that he could use them in regular conversation. Similar criticism could be raised about other authors too, of course. Should whaling jargon count for Melville? Foreign language phrases cribbed by Shakespeare? Even more broadly, words used thanks to a thesaurus? Do those count?

    Basically, the whole thing is silly and (arguably) fun. And seeing how the writer admits the issues/problems, I don’t get picking on that one particular weakness. Especially seeing that the numbers for Shakespeare and Melville are just to create some kind of benchmark. Now, if the article was Buzzfeeded out and all, YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHICH SEVEN RAPPERS ARE SMARTER THAN SHAKESPEARE, I’d be right there with my pitchfork.

  • Steve

    Being as there are a severe lack of comments in your history about the hatred expressed toward the previous president, specifically from the current one, this is nothing more than partisan hackery. You weren’t upset with all of this until it was your guy on the receiving end.

  • Garry_Owen

    He’s not “my guy;” you have no idea what has upset me; no articles on WFNY insulted the previous president, thus eliciting a response from me (which it would have); I’m not, however, required to express any outrage on any issue, particularly reflective of your narrow thinking; I’m not a partisan hack; I might know who is, though.

    Thanks for keeping the tone elevated, per usual.

  • mgbode

    Politics is a rather new game here at WFNY, so it is unfair to proclaim what might have been.

    Either way, while no one has stepped beyond the bounds, it appears it is getting close. Let’s all take a breather and start fresh on a new thread. OK.

  • mgbode

    while no one has stepped beyond the bounds, it appears it is getting
    close. Let’s all take a breather and start fresh on a new thread. OK.

  • mgbode

    not on this forum though… anyway

    while no one has stepped beyond the bounds, it appears it is getting
    close. Let’s all take a breather and start fresh on a new thread. OK.

  • Garry_Owen

    Sorry, Michael. I take responsibility, even for him. I should not have responded, and won’t do so anymore. I realize, fair or not, that one point of view is particularly inciting to some right now, and I won’t degn to offer it anymore. In the interest of protecting something I deem to be of great value, even if flawed, I will take that haitus for a while.

    Shalom.

  • mgbode

    all POV are fine here, I just wanted to head off any further discussion at the pass before it went somewhere that needed real correction. thanks.