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Visualizing What Makes Rap Lyrics So Unique

Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne are more alike than you’d think.

Visualizing What Makes Rap Lyrics So Unique
[Photo: Chris McKay/Getty Images]

The Language of Hip Hop, a new longform data visualization by Matt Daniels, takes a deep dive into the lyrics of hip-hop to figure out what, precisely, makes the genre so compelling.

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“This was an exercise in educating readers how to measure unique words to a data set–stats can be fun!,” Daniels tells Co.Design by email. “The focus was really on words unique to specific artists, as I felt like that would be an interesting rabbit hole for any fan.”

Daniels and his collaborators, the team over at The Data Face, analyzed the lyrics in 50,000 songs by 500 artists who have appeared on the Billboard Rap Chart to figure out the most common words appearing in hip-hop lyrics. Then, they performed the same analysis on almost 276,000 songs from all genres except hip-hop and compared the two. Daniels was most interested in sleuthing the most common words in hip-hop that aren’t common in other styles.

See the full series of graphics here. [Image: courtesy Matt Daniels]
The top three “most” hip-hop words–meaning words with a high likelihood of appearing in a hip-hop track but not in songs from other musical styles? Chopper, stunting, and flexing. The “least” hip-hop words (meaning words that have a high likelihood of appearing in non-hip-hop tracks)? Sailed, emptiness, and sigh.

“The ‘least hip hop words’ were definitely surprising–I wasn’t expecting it to have such a ‘nature’ and ’emo’ tone,” Daniels tells Co.Design. “I do think that certain themes pervade hip-hop–e.g., community, police corruption, lyrical prowess, etc.–which would mean there’d be relatively less emphasis on other topics.”

See the full series of graphics here. [Image: courtesy Matt Daniels]
Next, Daniels and The Data Face took a look at the types of words individual rappers use to see what makes their vocabulary unique from that of their peers, a characteristic that interested Daniels in the past. For example, the word “police” appeared in 35% of NWA tracks compared to 5% from other rappers.

Lastly, Daniels and the Data Face applied a machine learning algorithm to see which artists were most similar wordwise. Turns out Nicki Minaj is most similar to Lil Wayne, Missy Elliott is most similar to 50 Cent, and Future is most similar to Gucci. To learn more, explore the full Language of Hip Hop data viz here.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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