Singers and songwriters are some of the most creative and inventive artists around. Often you’ll be listening to a song and hear a phrase or verse that fits well or strikes a personal cord. Other times, the lyrics in a song blend so well with the beat or instruments that you can’t help but want to listen to it over and over again. Sometimes lyrics are just ‘fluff’ or nonsense, other times they have a real story or message for the listener. Regardless, over the years many singers and songwriters have developed reputations as lyrical geniuses or masters of integrating music with a deep and meaningful vocabulary.
A study by Matt Daniels of the consulting firm Undercurrent assessed the diversity of vocabulary in the world of rap. Utilizing the albums of rappers up until 2012, the study looked at which rappers had the largest and smallest vocabularies in the industry. The process involved taking a block of 35,000 words and counting each unique word – for instance ‘the’ would count as one unique word no matter how many times it was used in an artist’s 35,000 word allotment. The bigger the number, the more diverse and larger the vocabulary of the individual.
To put it into perspective, icons in literature such as William Shakespeare or Herman Melville’s Moby Dick were assessed. Utilizing several of Shakespeare’s plays it was found that out of 35,000 words the English playwright had used 5170 unique words. Moby Dick used an even broader vocabulary with 6022 unique words. So, how do rappers, often considered to be the lyrical masters of the music world today, compare with the literary greats and each other? Looking at 35,000 word blocks of lyrics it was found that Jay-Z had 4506 unique words, Ice Cube had 4371, Outkast used 5212 and the Beastie Boys came in with 5090. Perhaps the standout figure is provided by the Wu-Tang Clan, a ten member group, which used 5895 unique words out of 35,000 total words. In most cases, word-morphing, regional drawl and original slang aid in upping the unique word count for these artists.
Perhaps surprisingly, Snoop-Dogg, Kanye West and Lil Wayne find themselves in the bottom 20% when considering diversity of vocabulary in the rap world. Yet, they are not the lowest. The following list gives the 10 rappers with the smallest unique vocabulary. This is not to say these rappers are dumb or lack creativity. In fact, many of their songs are very memorable or the artists themselves are considered influential. What it suggests is that these rappers rely on a lot of repetition or that they tend to stay focused on one or two main topics from album to album which limits the type of words used from song to song.
10. Young Jeezy – 3650 Unique Words
Also known as Jay Wayne Jenkins, 36 year-old Young Jeezy has been active in the rap and hip-hop world since 2001. A former member of the groups Boyz n da Hood and Black Mafia Family, Jeezy is also the co-founder of record label CTE World. Over his career he was worked with many well-known artists including Kanye West, Akon, Rihanna, Nas and Usher and been awarded numerous BET and Grammy awards. From 2005 to 2011, Jeezy released four albums which all received a gold or platinum certification. Analysis of these albums’ lyrics show that Young Jeezy has the tenth smallest diversity of vocabulary among rappers.
9. Juvenile – 3630 Unique Words
Since 1995, Terius Gray, better known as Juvenile, has been producing rap albums. Not including collaborative efforts, Juvenile has released 11 studio albums over the past 20 years. The rapper’s big break into the mainstream came in 1999 with the single “Back That Azz Up.” As well as being a favorite for club-goers everywhere, some of this song’s lyrics were later used by artists such as Snoop Dogg and Drake. Juvenile has also tried his hand at acting, appearing in several films. In comparison with other rappers, he may have one of the least diverse vocabularies, but that won’t matter to the people who still love dancing to “Slow Motion” and “Back That Azz Up.”
8. Petey Pablo – 3617 Unique Words
Just released from jail this past March for having tried to take a stolen handgun aboard a flight to Los Angeles, Petey Pablo may not be the brightest light-bulb in the package but he has enjoyed success as a rapper. Born as Moses Mortimer Barrett III, Petey Pablo got a late start in the music business, not releasing his first album until 2001, when he was 28. This may have had something to do with a 5 year stint in jail for armed robbery in 1993. That said, two albums and a few very successful compilation singles with the likes of Lil Jon and Ciara helped the North Carolina rapper to mainstream success.
T6. Master P – 3612 Unique Words
From 1991 to 2013 Percey Robert Miller, better known as Master P, released 13 albums. His peak is generally agreed to have come between 1996 and 1998 with the albums Ice Cream Man, Ghetto D and MP Da Last Don. In addition to rapping, Miller has been in several movie and television productions, held two NBA contracts and is a successful businessman. Most people will always associate Miller with Master P and the music industry. Despite rapping about a variety of subjects and issues on his many albums over the years, Master P utilizes one of the least diverse vocabularies among rappers which places him on this list.
T6. Salt-n-Pepa – 3612 Unique Words
The only women to appear on this list, Salt-n-Pepa were one of the first successful all-female rap groups. The trio consisted of Salt (Cheryl James), Pepa (Sandra Denton) and DJ Spinderella (Diedra Roper). From 1986 to 1997, the trio released five albums and spawned such hits as “Push It,” “Let’s Talk About Sex” and “Whatta Man.” In addition to being an all-female group, their choice in revealing clothing (relatively speaking) and lyrics about men and sex garnered a lot of attention and helped propel them into the mainstream. While their vocabulary wasn’t very diverse or unique, Salt-n-Pepa remain one of the iconic groups in rap and music history.
5. 50 Cent – 3591 Unique Words
Is anyone really shocked by this? Thirty-eight year-old Curtis James Jackson III rose to fame with his eight times certified platinum 2003 album Get Rich or Die Tryin’. The driving force behind this meteoric rise to fame were rappers and producers Eminem and Dr. Dre. Now that you have “In da Club” playing on repeat for the rest of the day in your head, you should also know that since 2003, 50 Cent has released a total of 8 studio albums and appeared in many film, television and video game productions. He may not be a lyrical genius but I am sure the numerous records and financial success from his music career let him sleep very well at night.
4. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony – 3547 Unique Words
Cleveland rap group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony are considered to be one of the best rap groups of all time. Since 1992, the five-man group has released 10 albums and collected a Grammy and two American Music Awards. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s success was greatly helped when they were signed by Eazy-E to Ruthless Records in 1993. Major hits included “Thuggish Ruggish Bone,” “Tha Crossroads,” “Look into My Eyes” and “If I Could Teach the World.” Their style of rap, quick rhythms over slower beats, has influenced many artists who have come after them. Lyrically, they are one of the least diverse groups, yet this is more than compensated for by their technique and methodology.
3. Drake – 3522 Unique Words
Drake, a.k.a Aubrey Drake Graham, gained notoriety during his several seasons on the Canadian television show Degrassi: The Next Generation. In the music industry, he released four albums and has written songs for notable artists including Alicia Keys and Jamie Foxx. Over the past few years Drake has been involved in several feuds with other rappers, most notably Chris Brown. Critics have also poked fun at his attempts to gain ‘street cred’ by saying he went to “hood” schools (in Toronto) or struggled to support his family on the salary of a Canadian television actor. In any event, the years spent at Degrassi didn’t diversify this rapper’s vocabulary much, which is why he sits at #3 on this list.
2. Too Short – 3391 Unique Words
Active in the music industry since 1982, Todd Anthony Shaw, a.k.a Too Short or Too $hort, is considered one of the pioneers of hip hop on the American West Coast. The 48 year-old has worked with the biggest names in rap, including Tupac, The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Sean Combs and Lil Jon. With 16 albums and his own record label – Up All Nite Records – it’s easy to see why Too Short is such an important figure in the world of rap. In terms of lyrics, one can only get so creative when rapping about pimps, drugs and sex which brings Too Short in at #2 on the list of rappers with small vocabularies.
1. DMX – 3214 Unique Words
Earl Simmons, or DMX, is one of the best-selling rap artists of all time. His top album … And Then There Was X went Platinum five times and spawned the massive hit “Party Up.” Over his career he has released 7 albums and has appeared in over a dozen films and several television shows. 43 year old DMX continues to perform and create music but has been limited by numerous (and we stress numerous) run-ins with the law. With so much time taken up in court, not to mention the requirements to help raise 12 children, it isn’t a surprise that DMX has the smallest unique vocabulary among modern rappers. He just doesn’t have the time to work in new words.
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