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Lyricism in hip-hop seems to be on the decline, with many of today’s rappers replacing the intricate rhymes and storytelling of the nineties with catchy (but nevertheless lyrically deficient) bars. Yet, criticism of “modern music” has always been tainted with some degree of nostalgia, and it’s easy to cherry-pick examples of hip-hop’s supposed decline. So, have popular rap songs actually gotten less lyrical over time? I scraped the lyrics of Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs to find out.
Billboard provides twenty-five of the most popular rap songs, updated weekly, through their Hot Rap Songs chart. I scraped the lyrics (using Genius) for every song on these charts, from 1989 (when the chart was created) up to the present, giving me a dataset of popular rap song lyrics over time.
The first thing I was interested in was if songs have gotten less lyrically dense over time. In other words, has the percentage of unique words in popular rap songs decreased over time? If today’s rappers are less lyrical than previous generations, one would expect that they also use a smaller vocabulary. So to analyze this, I calculated the average proportion of unique words per song for each chart week of the Billboard Hot Rap Songs. In this way, I had one number to describe how “lyrical” any given week’s most popular 25 songs were. Then, I plotted against time:
As can be seen, the average proportion of unique words used per song has steadily decreased from the early 1990s, when nearly 70% of words per song were unique, to just around 50% today. In other words, today’s rap songs are considerably less “lyrical” (use less unique words per song) than previous generations.
What about the types of words being used, though? Are rappers today using less complex words or discussing more superficial topics? To examine these questions, I looked first at average word lengths of songs, a good indicator of complexity. I assumed that songs containing longer words would be considered as more “lyrical”.
Here, it’s clear that average word length in rap songs remains mostly constant, indicating that the complexity of words used by artists has not really changed over time. Similarly, if we examine average word frequency (a word’s frequency is the probability of it appearing in a representative English corpus; uncommon, or more “lyrical” words would have lower probabilities) we again see that word complexity in rap songs has remained mostly constant.
So what does this mean? Popular rap songs are undoubtedly becoming more repetitive, as today’s songs use less unique words proportionally than previous generations. Yet, it’s hard to say if today’s rap is actually any less “lyrical”. Sure, popular rap today is more repetitive, but artists are not actually using less complicated vocabulary. Regardless, though, let’s just enjoy the music.
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