Absurdly Detailed Investigations: Rappers With the Largest Vocabularies
Holy sweet baby jesus. We like to think of ourselves as rap nerds around these parts, and we're certainly no strangers to paying way, way, way too much attention to hip-hop related questions, but ultimately, our nerdery can only go so far. To truly go next level you have to start getting all scientifical and shit, and I barely passed 8th grade algebra, let alone made it to statistics.
Thankfully though, Matthew Daniels is both a rap nerd and an actual nerd, and he's decided to put his talents to good use by breaking down hip-hop's wordiest rappers. Well done sir, well done. RefinedHype Nation salutes you.
Before we get into the details, there's already a lot of misreporting happen, so let's make sure we're all on the same page when it comes to what Daniels' study actualy says, and what it doesn't say.
He dumped every word (via RapGenius) used by various rappers into a database to determine how many unique/different words they've said. It should go without saying, but that's different than total words said, although it would be interesting to find out what rapper says the most words, on average, per song or album (my money would be on Kweli, or speed rappers like Twista). The analysis is pretty literal, meaning that essentially similar words like "pimp" and "pimps", or "shorty" and "shawty", are counted as different words. He did, however, factor in punctuation differences, so "pimpin" and "pimpin'" with an apostrophe at the end only count as one word. Still though, counting similar words as separate should be essentially insignificant in the context of a rapper's entire catalog.
Speaking of which, it's also crucial to note that to standardize, he's using the first 35,000 words of an artist's career, which amounts to something like their three to five albums (not counting non-album work). So when we're talking about Kanye here, we're talking about "College Dropout" through "808s" Kanye, more or less, not "MBDTF" or "Yeezus" Kanye, although it's fair to assume that a rapper's vocabulary stays relatively constant through the course of their career.
One last point, my only real qualm with Daniels' methodology was his decision to exclude "mixtapes", especially since that means a lot of artists, like ODB or Kendrick Lamar, who don't have 35,000 words worth of album material, can't be included. In this context, why exclude mixtapes? Especially considering there's no real difference between a mixtape and an album anymore. Still though, that's like complaining about getting a free Bentley with a scratch on it; I'll take the Bentley, thank you very much.
(Full image here)
Aesop Rock Wins
So now that we've got the methodology out of the way, let's get to the much more fun part, the results. First and foremost, Aesop Rock came out on top by a wide margin, which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's a fan of the NYC emcee, including myself. Now, it has to be said that there's not necessarily a direct correlation between an artist's vocabulary and how dope they are, something that Aesop himself made a point of saying. DMX came in dead last, but music was always about passion and feeling, which can count as much, if not more, than pure wordplay.
By the same token though, in hip-hop circles Aesop can be dismissed as a "super lyrical miracle" rapper, which is also very limiting. Your classic "super lyrical miracle" rapper rhymes complicated words to appear smart, although there's no actual depth to what they're saying. Aesop, on the other hand, both just purely loves to combine words in interesting ways, and is actually saying some shit. Take one of his best lines:
"I've never had a dream in my life / cause a dream is what you wanna do but still haven't pursued / I knew what I wanted and did it till it was done / so I've been the dream I wanted to be since day one." - "No Regrets"
There's not a single thesaurus-worth word in there, but it's still mind blowingly deep. Here's the point, it's entirely possible to give Aesop his just due here and appreciate densely lyrical rap without being elitist and looking down on lyrically simpler but still super dope rap.
Not like we needed another reason to appreciate Wu-Tang, but this is another reminder of just how fucking incredible the Clan was. Collectively, as a group, the Wu is in the top ten, and three emcees - GZA, RZA and Ghostface - are also in the top ten based purely off their solo material. Do you know get how fucking incredible that is? Do you really? That's like if three of the top scorers in NBA history just so happened to play on the same high school team, because they all grew up in the same neighborhood. What are the fucking odds?
* I think most people would have guessed Lupe Fiasco would have been ranked near the top here, but he's actually pretty middle of the pack, just barely ahead of Nelly and Game.
* Kanye's also a lot lower on this chart than I would have expected. Although, again, perhaphs the lesson is that, on the whole, there's a relatively weak correlation between vocabulary and the complexity of someone's rhymes.
* On the flipside, it was also a little surpising to see Redman, who I think of as a relatively less lyrical rapper, near the top.
* A quick list of rappers with a smaller rap vocabulary than Lil B: DMX, Drake, 50 Cent, Bone Thugs, Young Jeezy.
Ultimately, any hip-hop fan who studies Daniels' work for more than ten minutes is going to have eleventy-billion thing to say, so I'll shut up and let RefinedHype Nation have at it. This is your chance to rap nerd the fuck out people, let's do it....
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth, the proprietor of RefinedHype, and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks in podcast form and appears on RevoltTV. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]
This article originally appeared on RefinedHype.com, which has now merged with The DJBooth. For more info, click here.
Written by Nathan S. on 05/5/14
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