As much as some people – particularly parents of young children – may be opposed to it, rap is one of the most commercially successful genres out there. Despite the extreme success of many rappers in popular music as well as the respect rap artists have gained whether it was through the mainstream or the underground, the vocabulary of many modern day emcees in their lyrics can vary greatly. In a previous article, The Richest looked at the 10 rappers with the least diverse vocabulary. This time, we’re flipping the script and looking at the 10 rappers on the other side of that spectrum: the biggest wordsmiths in hip hop based on how many unique words are found in the first 35,000 lyrics of their tracks, from a graph put together by coder/designer Matt Daniels comparing the depth of the lexicons of many mainstream and underground rappers.
Interestingly, four of the entries on this top 10 list come from one source: the Wu-Tang Clan. Yes, the collective from Staten Island – or should we say, Shaolin – occupy one entry by themselves, but three of their members (Ghostface Killah, RZA and GZA) have their own entries based on their solo endeavours. Otherwise, there are artists on the list such as Kool Keith and CunninLynguists whose feet are planted firmly in the underground despite years of experience in the hip hop world.
In fact, these rappers have a more diverse vocabulary than even many of Shakespeare’s works, and their vocabularies are on par with Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick. Regardless, it shows that rap music can easily be used as a form of true poetry rather than simply regurgitating the themes of materialism, violence and hypersexuality found in commercial hip hop. Here are the 10 rap acts/emcees with the biggest vocabularies based on most unique words used.
11 Killah Priest
Known primarily for his affiliation with the Wu-Tang Clan (more on them later), Killah Priest is also known for having a very diverse vocabulary at 5,737 unique words used, including many rhymes referencing religion and strong political viewpoints. Although he has not had an album as commercially successful as his 1998 debut Heavy Mental – which peaked at #24 on the Billboard album charts – Killah Priest has been sharing the stage in recent years with Wu member Ghostface Killah (more on him later as well), and has three albums planned for this year alone: Castle Hop, The Untold Story of Walter Reed Pt. 2, and Planet of the Godz Pt. 1.
10 Ghostface Killah
He’s the loudest, most high-pitched MC in all of the Wu-Tang Clan, and he’s also one of the most diverse in terms of vocabulary at 5,774 unique words. On top of that, he’s one of the Wu’s most critically and commercially successful breakout solo artists. Ghostface Killah has been regarded as one of the greatest storytellers in rap music, and his abrasive delivery and inventive lyrical skills have helped him transcend the confines of the group that made him famous. His best albums are arguably 2000’s Supreme Clientele and 2006’s Fishscale, but has a new album in the works tentatively titled Supreme Clientele Presents... Blue & Cream: The Wally Era.
9 The Roots
Once branded as “hip hop’s first legitimate band,” the Roots have earned a reputation lately for being Jimmy Fallon’s house band, but their overall reputation makes it hardly any wonder why Jimmy would have been so keen to bring them onboard. Not only are they one of the most lyrically diverse acts in hip hop thanks to the lyrical prowess of Black Thought – who uses 5,803 unique words – on top of smooth drum beats from fellow founding member Questlove, they’re also one of the tightest live acts working today. The group released their 11th studio album, ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, back in May.
8 Wu-Tang Clan
Even though several of the Clan’s emcees are on this list based on their individual work, the group as a collective has used 5,895 unique words in their first 35,000 lyrics. Consisting currently of RZA, GZA, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon, Masta Killa, Ghostface Killah, U-God and Method Man (and formerly of the late, great Ol’ Dirty Bastard), the Wu-Tang Clan have come out of the slums of Shaolin to give people some of the most classic hip hop records ever, particularly their 1993 debut album Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. The clan are supposedly working on a new LP entitled A Better Tomorrow, though a release date is unknown.
He is often referred to as the Wu-Tang’s fearless leader, and it’s fairly easy to understand why: he produces much of the Clan’s work as well as the solo work of the members and their affiliates (known as the Killa Beez). He is also an actor and movie director (his directorial debut was 2012’s The Man with the Iron Fists) as well as a soundtrack composer, making the score for the Kill Bill movies. Lyrically, he has used 5,905 unique words in his first 35,000 lyrics; more than the Clan do as a collective. Currently, RZA has been producing the new Wu-Tang album, releasing a brand of headphones, and working on a project called Achozen with System of a Down bassist Shavo Odadjian.
This trio of Kentucky and Georgia-bred rappers have stayed primarily in the underground for the duration of their existence, but their vocabulary is one of the largest in hip hop. With five albums and five mixtapes (their most recent of which was Strange Journey Volume Three, released in April of this year) under their belt, CunninLynguists have used 5,971 words in their first 35,000 lyrics. The group, which consists of emcees Kno, Deacon the Villain, and Natti, have seen much critical praise for their work despite a lack of major commercial success; gaining features from The Source, Spin, and even The Onion.
Known mainly for his battle rapping abilities – although recent battle raps have been subpar at best and have shown him pulling out notepads (his 2012 battle with Dizaster, anyone?) – Canibus is also known for having a very diverse vocabulary, using 5,991 unique words in his first 35,000 lyrics. Despite his somewhat controversial history – being involved in feuds with rappers like Wyclef Jean and LL Cool J – the Jamaican-born rapper (real name Germaine Williams) has been regarded as one of the top rap lyricists of all time, as well as one of the top 50 MCs of our time by About.com.
3 Kool Keith
Known in part for being both a pioneer of the horrorcore genre as well as his role in the Ultramagnetic MCs, Kool Keith is not only a prolific rapper – he’s continued to consistently release albums at age 50 – but also one of the emcees with the biggest lexicons, at 6,238 unique words used. However, Kool Keith has more recently been known for collaborating with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and performing at the Gathering of the Juggalos, and his highest charting album was 1999‘s Black Elvis/Lost in Space, which peaked at #180 on the Billboard album charts. He recently released his 15th studio album Demolition Crash in May.
Known as the “spiritual head” of the Wu-Tang Clan thanks to being both the first Wu member to get a solo record deal as well as the oldest member of the group, GZA is also one of the most intellectual and lyrically diverse rappers in not just the Clan, but all of hip hop. The Genius has used 6,426 unique words in the first 35,000 of his solo efforts, and has recently been doing talks at universities and working on initiatives to improve science education for youth in New York City. GZA also has a new solo album, Dark Matter, planned for this year.
1 Aesop Rock
Not to be confused with A$AP Rocky, Aesop Rock is a completely different beast from the similarly-named leader of the A$AP Mob as far as his rapping style is concerned. His penchant for using big words and complex wordplay (particularly homonyms) as well as his use of abstract lyrical themes help to make him the runaway winner of this top 10 list with 7,392 unique words used in his first 35,000 lyrics. Aes is best known for albums such as 2001’s Labor Days and 2007’s None Shall Pass, but his most recent musical project was last year’s Hokey Fright, an album he did as the Uncluded with Kimya Dawson of the Moldy Peaches.