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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Largest Vocabulary in Hip Hop?

Who has the largest vocab in Hip Hop?

Matt Daniels, a New York designer/coder/scientist, has published a cool infographic that appears to answer this age old question.  His chart compares 85 Hip Hop artists and the unique words that appear in their music.  He selected the first 35,000 lyrics in an artist's history and compared them against one another.  I wonder how this list might look if he developed some sort of unique words per song average?  We could think of this figure like a baseball player's batting average of a basketball player's field goal percentage.  These figures might help account for style shifts across an emcee's career and give us a more accurate representation of how many unique words emcees use in their music.

Is this list really about vocab?
And if we did this, speed and cadence might begin to complicate his findings.

For instance, the Top 10 or so are dominated by East Coast artists, who tend to have a faster delivery than Southern and West Coast artists.  Producers and Deejays can attest to this, but the average Wu Tang or Aesop Rock beat is played at a faster BPM (beats per minute) than beats that Lil Wayne, Master P, or even Snoop rhyme over (who are predictably low on this list).

The one exception to this rule might be Bone Thugs N Harmony, who come in near the bottom of the list.  I wonder how this worked?  Daniels admits that Hip Hop is hard to transcribe and that it's full of compound words.  Could this help explain why Bone isn't higher on the list?

Lastly, I wonder what this list would look like if Daniels had also used less mainstream artists?  The list pretty predictably shows that artists whose songs are more club-oriented (e.g. Too Short, Lil Wayne, DMX--who have repetitive hooks and simple verses) appear lower on the list than those whose songs are less for the club and more for the Hip Hop 'head' (e.g. Kool Keith, MF Doom are quite high on the list).

An underground classic!
How might this list look if Daniels had used underground artists, too?  I wonder how Freestyle Fellowship, Busdriver, Nocando, and other Good Life/Project Blowed artists would appear on such a list?  And if we considered the words/song average, certain artists that rank high on this list, might drop down a tad, too.

If you think Aesop and other east coast artists rhyme quickly, you should listen to some of the aforementioned cats.  These guys rhyme faster than anyone I've ever heard.  They are part of a generation of emcees from The Good Life (the historical predecessor to Project Blowed) that created a style called "choppin'" which is a rapid-fire style of rhyming.  I write about this and other sides of aspiring emcees in my book, which is currently under review.  Marcyliena Morgan, a sociolinguist at Harvard, has also written about this in her excellent work.   But, to see an example of this, check out this video of P.E.A.C.E. and Ellay Khule--two Good Life/Project Blowed veterans--going back and forth freestyling with each other.

Anyways, this is just to say that Daniels has done some interesting descriptive stuff on Hip Hop and I am looking forward to seeing more.


  1. I don't see how you make a connection to speed - Aesop Rock is "fast"? Tech N9ne, Eminem, Ludacris and Lupe are faster than him, and they don't approach him on the list. OutKast and Wu-Tang aren't fast, and they make the list. And Bone comes in low because, despite their speed, a quick listen to their songs make it obvious - they have a small vocabulary, often repeating the same word or phrase multiple times to fill up space on the beat to keep their fast flow unbroken.

    1. Thanks for your reply. You raise interesting counterpoints...I would agree with you that Aesop and others aren't "fast" per se, but their deliveries are shaped by the styles of beats that they rhyme over (and these are typically faster than Southern and West Coast songs). This observation isn't perfect, either, but I don't think it's totally off the mark... Take for example the bpm/cadence of "None Shall Pass" (Aesop) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZEBGCOCxLgA vs.

      Master P's "Make em Say Uhhh" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5ZvzIOO6aU

      There are always artists who sort of defy their regional styles as well. Outkast sort of fits into this category (as does e-40). I know this is only one example in their vast body of work, but Outkast raps quickly in B.O.B. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fVyVIsvQoaE

      You're also right to point out that some artists rely more on repetition than on introducing unique words into a song. That's another interesting way to start making sense of Daniels' data.

      It might also be interesting to note the length of an artists' songs. Artists who have longer songs could presumably have more unique lyrics than those who write shorter, snappier songs...

      Anyways, thanks for responding! I would love to hear your hypotheses, too...

  2. I also realized that the list covers the first 35,000 lyrics...So, that would eliminate some of my hypotheses...Anyways, It's an interesting illustration...quickness might not matter as much as an emcee's style (e.g. repetition, longer hooks vs. longer verses, etc)...

  3. I've update the post a bit to reflect the proportion bit that I neglected in the earlier version. My bad!

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