Rap Stats: Breaking Down The Words in Rap Lyrics Over Time
Rap’s history has been traced many ways -- through books, documentaries, official compilations, DJ mixes, university archives, even parties. But until now you haven’t been able to look at the development of the genre through its building blocks: the actual words used by emcees.
We introduce Rap Stats, a tool to plot the frequency of words appearing in rap songs from 1988 through the present day. You can use Rap Stats to perform your own searches at http://rapgenius.com/rapstats
This graph shows the popularity of the term “crunk” in rap lyrics over time
Rap Stats lets you explore, in surprising detail, the histories of regional genres, slang, trends, and more. For example, the entire history of Southern rap's rise to commercial dominance can be told in one word -- and that word is “crunk.”
You can see above that usage started to slowly increase in the mid-1990s. This was anecdotally confirmed to me by DJ Cipha Sounds, who was around then both DJ’ing for Lil Kim, which brought him all over the country, and spinning at legendary NYC nightclub The Tunnel. According to Cipha, the folks who first started spreading the music outside of its home region were NYC guys who would go “down South” to hustle for a few months at a time, then return to New York.
Sure enough, this is reflected in the rise in “crunk” from 1995 for a full decade. By 2005, what was once a regional style had taken over the nation, and every rapper with a drawl (or who could fake one) was going platinum. But as with all trends, peak saturation was reached (in this case, right around the time Slim Thug sold 130K in a week), and things settled down.
As one star faded, so another rose. Watch as Molly graduates from designer drug into hip-hop ubiquity:
You can see a similar pattern play out with “twerk”:
The word first pops up in 1993-4. This makes sense, as DJ Jubilee’s “Do The Jubilee All,” generally acknowledged as the first recorded rap use of the term, was released in ’93. Jubilee was a bounce artist, and one of the many great things about early bounce music was that it functioned as a conversation between the artists. It wasn’t too long before Jubilee’s call to “Twerk, baby” was answered by Cheeky Blakk’s 1995 classic “Twerk Something!”, and a slew of other N.O. artists followed her lead.
The word lived quietly as a regional trend, losing steam in the late 90s, until pop culture finally discovered the dance, and, as we all know now, launched “twerk” into a Miley-fueled rocket ship ride, with no end in sight.
(Of course, Will Smith fans might have said the same thing about “jiggy” in 1998, and we can see how that turned out...)
In this way, Rap Stats can show you the influence of individual rappers. Take a look at “shizzle”:
“Izzle language” has been around since the 70s, and was first put on record in 1981. We see a slight uptick post-Doggystyle, when Snoop’s influence was at its height. Then Jay-Z uses it on “Izzo” in 2001 and basically single-handedly sparks a three-year renaissance.
What’s Actually More Important to Rappers: Sex or Money?
Rap Stats can also help us answer some of the genre’s most immortal questions, like, which element of A$AP Rocky’s holy trinity is the most important?
Rap is in constant contact with the world around it. So one way to think of Rap Stats is as a Rap-tinted window on current events and culture.
Try searching for the last four Presidents’ names (two of which are the same, of course), and see the near-perfect graph of their terms that results:
Or watch as rap reacts to the War on Terror in the wake of 9/11:
Why did Facebook buy Instagram? Could it be its electric growth among the rapper set? Watch as Twitter holds on for dear life:
Rap and professional sports have always gone hand in hand, and we can see the evolution of rappers’ favorite basketball players:
A graph of the three Mikes reminds us of Tyson’s fall from grace following his first loss in 1990 at the hands of Buster Douglas:
The History of This Thing of Ours
1988 marks both the beginning of our data set, and the middle of what is generally considered the Golden Age, where originality, Afrocentrism, and Cameo cuts reigned supreme.
Within a few years, rap would be widely acknowledged as big business, and thus what bell hooks calls the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” would come to restrict the personas available to mainstream rappers to Gangsta and, um, Gangsta.
This can be seen pretty clearly if we look at the use of the word “black” (the best proxy for Afrocentrism we could think of) and “wisdom” (a word used frequently in its Supreme Alphabet sense by the 5% Nation of Islam, who had an outsize influence during the Golden Age). As you can see below, “black” peaks in 1991, and “wisdom” in 1990. It’s all downhill from there.
Not coincidentally, you can see a strong upswing in the East Coast/West Coast beef at exactly this moment, all the way up until its tragic ending.
On a lighter note, Rap Stats also gives a pretty clear picture of the birth of RG!
Now it’s your turn to discover the myriad other stories that Rap Stats can tell. Whether you want to have fun, trace trends, discover more about the genre’s history, or just answer Black Sheep’s eternal conundrum, you have the tools. Welcome to Rap Stats.
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