Matt Daniels’ article “The Largest Vocabulary in Hip Hop” made waves among rap fans. Using statistical analysis, Daniels examines the lyrics of rappers from DMX to Kool Keith and creates a ranking based on the variety of words they use. Some of his findings confirm what we already knew: niche fan favorites like MF Doom and Aesop Rock boast impressive word catalogs. But what is surprising is how far some artists who lean towards the “smarter” side of mainstream, like Drake and Kanye West, lag behind the likes of Wu-Tang Clan and OutKast. Let me put it in starker terms—Drake and Kanye both fall well short of Diddy. So does 2Pac.
The most common captions accompanying this article on social media were along the lines of, “I knew there was a reason I liked Wu-Tang,” or, “This proves how much better Aesop Rock is than all the mainstream crap.” Comments like these show that many people associate the amount of words a rapper uses with the breadth of his (or her) artistic expression—at least when they stop to think about it. On some level, this isn’t a horrible assumption. The bigger your vocabulary, the more tools you have at your disposal to use in your art. And while vocabulary isn’t the only thing that helps make art, it certainly is a factor. The problem is that in hip-hop, and music in general, words aren’t the only thing that makes up an artist’s vocabulary.
In hip-hop, and music in general, words aren’t the only thing that makes up an artist’s vocabulary.
The dictionary definition of vocabulary includes not only “a list or collection of words,” but also “a supply of expressive techniques or devices (as of an art form).” This last portion has particular relevance for hip-hop. Much of the constant innovation in hip-hop, especially recently, has come in these “expressive techniques,” not in the list of words. Artists have tested the boundaries between singing and rapping, between steady rhymes and syncopated cacophony, between monotone and autotune and screeching. Today’s rap is further from “words on a page” than any other period of rap in history. Sometimes I don’t even know if it’s possible to write down Young Thug lyrics.
We make fun of Drake for being an emotional guy, but he’s an undeniably gifted emotional storyteller. And it’s not necessarily the content of Drake’s raps—let’s say “the plot”—that’s compelling. Many times it’s the techniques he uses to deliver his emotions that listeners connect to. These tools are part of his “vocabulary.” If we are going to use vocabulary to make any sort of value judgement on musicians, it’s only fair to broaden our definition to include all facets of artistic vocabulary. Wu-Tang Clan might have a greater “potential for artistic expression” than Drake (if that’s what we’re considering vocabulary to represent), but if it were a fair fight I doubt the results would be quite as uneven.
Daniels ends his article with this Jay Z lyric from “Moment Of Clarity”:
“I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars/They criticized me for it, yet they all yell ‘holla’/If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be/Lyrically Talib Kweli/Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/But I did 5 mil, I ain’t been rhyming like Common since”
Jay Z’s underlying point is that using fewer (or less complicated) words creates rap that is “dumber” and less expressive. He implies the average consumer wouldn’t like his music if his lyrics (and rhymes) were as sophisticated as those of Talib Kweli or Common, and says he’s had to dumb down his lyrics to appease the mob. Even so, it’s clear Jay Z has a reverence for words, and especially his own skill with them. Given that sentiment, it shouldn’t surprise us that Jay Z wrote a book that analyzed his own rap catalog as poetry. He seems to long for a world where rap is consumed in a more literary sense by the mainstream public, but recognizes that it never will be.
Maybe this realization is something other rappers have internalized as well, but instead of feeling confined by it, they have devised ways to get around it. If using more complicated words is going to alienate your audience, it makes sense to expand your artistic vocabulary in other ways. Maybe you mess with your tone, or your delivery, or the combinations of words you use. These elements can affect the meaning of your songs as much as your word choice. They can also revitalize stale words and create subtle differences in their meanings. Contemporary rap, even in the mainstream, is bursting with this kind of experimentation.
Daniels’ insightful analysis shows that rappers can swing with heavyweights like Shakespeare when it comes to word choice, and highlights which rappers the word-obsessed among us (myself included) might gravitate towards. But the comments I’ve seen on social media disparaging or praising rappers for their place in the hierarchy of word usage seem to miss something. Rap can be poetic, but it’s not poetry. It’s music, a performed art, and as such its vocabulary cannot be described simply by words.
Rap can be poetic, but it’s not poetry. It’s music, a performed art, and as such its vocabulary cannot be described simply by words.
E-40 has always been on the forefront of language innovation in hip-hop. Daniels points out that he has been credited with inventing a variety of rap slang including “shizzle” (sorry, Snoop). But for better or for worse, E-40’s brand of language wizardry is decidedly different from much of the experimentation going on in rap right now. However you feel about artists like Future, their innovations cannot be captured by an examination of lyrics. And though the congregation of “newer” rappers at the bottom of Daniels’ chart seems discouraging, it might not be worthy of the internet hand-wringing it has inspired. To really know if Drake has a smaller vocabulary than Wu-Tang Clan, and to know if he is in fact “saying less,” we are going to have to look beyond words.