A New Study Shows Which Rappers Are Lyrically Similar & Many Are Very Surprising
As a data scientist, Matt Daniels has channeled much of his skill towards Hip-Hop, providing Heads with exceptionally creative looks at the numbers behind the names. In 2014, he made waves with an interactive graphic which grouped rappers along a scale according to the number of unique words contained in their rhymes. Today Daniels (who is also a designer and coder) unveils a new infographic, this one also devoted to lyrics.
This time, it’s lyrical similarity that informs his data. He has collected 308 spitters and organized them based on a shared likeness in language. Using everything from onomatopoeia like “skrrt” and traditional nouns like “boat,” Daniels is able to find out which MCs sound alike without any consideration paid to the usual characteristics one might consider, such as accent, cadence, or rhyme scheme. Instead, he’s collected the most frequently used words of rappers ranging from AZ to YG. “We decided to use 26 million words from the lyrics of the top 500 charting artists on Billboard’s Rap Chart (about 50,000 songs),” he explains. But what makes this study particular to Rap music is not just the analysis of words found commonly in lyrics. As the infographic’s website explains, “what matters for our analysis is usage in Hip-Hop compared to usage in all music lyrics. We want words unique to the genre: high frequency in Hip-Hop, low everywhere else.”
The study even includes a line graph in which you can search for a word to find out how unique it is in Hip-Hop. Out of the 35,000 words measured, the list of most used Hip-Hop words includes “lowrider,” “stunting,” “trapping,” and “realest.” The words least likely to appear in Rap lyrics include “sailing,” “sigh,” and “cried.” Unsurprisingly, slang features prominently in the list of words likeliest to be heard in the lyrics analyzed, with “dope,” “hood,” “popping,” and “stack” dominating the list of most used Hip-Hop words among common words in English.
Delving even further, the study examines which words are used more often by which artists in an effort to answer the question “what makes a word central to an artist?” For example, Daniels and his team analyzed the frequency of the word “police” in N.W.A. lyrics versus those of the average artist (37% to 5%). “Just about every artist uses the word ‘police,’ N.W.A just says it more often. A better marker for their vocabulary would be words only used by N.W.A.,” says the report. Researchers then analyzed the frequency with which N.W.A. used the word “Compton” compared to the hundreds of other rappers analyzed and found “about 75% of the artists in our Hip-Hop dataset never use this word – it’s rare. That’s a great signal: for the artists who do say ‘Compton,’ it very much characterizes their lyrics.”
Using that system of logic, Daniels et al then list the top ten words central to artists, using the information retrieval system tf-idf (term frequency–inverse document frequency). Based on that, for example, O.C.’s top ten words central to his raps are phenomenal, clocking, bumpy, D.N.A., phenomenon, Moses, lyricist, aura, mugs, and – of course – crates. That’s an oversimplification of the methodology, but after spending a few minutes exploring all of the study’s functionalities, Heads could very well end up spending several hours with the staggering amount of ingenious results Daniels and his team came up with.