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Mon May 5, 2014
Music

Yeezy Or The Bard: Who's The Best Wordsmith In Hip-Hop?

Originally published on Tue May 6, 2014 12:16 pm

William Shakespeare had a wildly extensive vocabulary. Of more than 800,000 total words in all of his works, almost 29,000 of them are unique.

Although impressive, there are a few rappers who give the Bard a run for his money. Data scientist Matt Daniels charted the vocabularies of hip-hop artists against Shakespeare and Herman Melville.

"This is not a serious academic study. This is an, like, 'I thought it'd be cool on the Internet [project],' " he says.

Daniels analyzed a pool of 85 different rappers with the help of Rap Genius, which catalogs lyrics and their meanings.

"Using that database, I created a visualization that maps out how these artists' vocabularies stand up against each other," he says.

He used a sample size of 35,000 words for each artist — about the number of lyrics in three to five studio albums. At the top of the list was Aesop Rock, who used 7,392 unique words; Wu-Tang Clan used 5,895.

Using the same sample size, Shakespeare had about 5,000 unique words. To quote from Hamlet, "This bodes some strange eruption to our state." In fact, the Bard was outworded by 15 rappers and Melville was bested by three.

But Daniels says he isn't trying to make some sweeping statement about the lyrical prowess of hip-hop.

"Really, my inclusion of Shakespeare was just to say — if using the same methodology — here's how he would compare with some hip-hop artists," he says.

Daniels says that picking a style of vocabulary is a challenge every artist faces — to be complex or dumb things down?

"A certain style gives me a certain audience and that audience might attract to a certain fan base and wealth that I otherwise wouldn't have," he says.

Daniels doesn't quantify how many of hip-hop's unique words can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary. But then again, Shakespeare was quite creative in making up words himself.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ROMEO AND JULIET")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What's in a name? That which you call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet...

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Shakespeare had a wildly extensive vocabulary. He used 29,000 different words across his works. Eight hundred thousand words total. But does that beat this?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROTECT YA NECK")

WU-TANG CLAN: (Rapping) I smoke on the mic like smoking Joe Frazier, the hell raiser, raising hell with the flavor. Terrorize the jam......

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan and some other rappers give The Bard a run for his money. That's according to Matt Daniels. He charted the vocabularies of hip-hop artists against Shakespeare and Herman Melville.

MATT DANIELS: This is not a serious academic study. This is an, like, I thought it'd be cool on the Internet.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Daniels has analyzed a pool of 85 different rappers, with the help of a website called Rap Genius. It catalogs lyrics and their meanings.

DANIELS: Using that database, I created a visualization that maps out how these artists' vocabularies stand up against one another.

BLOCK: He used a sample size of 35,000 words for each artist, that's about the number of lyrics in 3-to-5 studio albums. At the top of the list, rapper Aesop Rock had 6400 unique words. And the Wu-Tang Clan had 5,895 unique words.

SIEGEL: Using the same sample size, Shakespeare had about 5,000 unique words. To quote from "Hamlet..."

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "HAMLET")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This bodes some strange eruption to our state.

SIEGEL: In fact, The Bard was out-worded by 15 rappers, Melville by three. But Daniels says he isn't trying to make some sweeping statement about the lyrical prowess of hip-hop.

DANIELS: Really, my inclusion of Shakespeare was just to say if using the same methodology here's how he would compare with some hip-hop artists

BLOCK: Daniels says that picking a style of vocabulary is a challenge every artist faces: To be complex or dumb things down?

DANIELS: A certain style gives me a certain audience. And that audience might attract to a certain fan base and wealth that I otherwise wouldn't have.

SIEGEL: Daniels doesn't quantify how many of hip-hop's unique words can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary. But then again, Shakespeare was quite creative in making up words himself.

BLOCK: Fo shizzle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOMENTS OF CLARITY")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) Feel my truths The music business hate me because the industry ain't make me. Hustlers and boosters embrace me and the music I be making, I dumb down for my audience and double my dollars. They criticize me for it yet they all yell, Holla. If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be lyrically Talib...

SIEGEL: This is to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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