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Beyond Wu-Tang Clan: Who Has Hip-Hop's Richest Vocabulary?
On Jan. 21 cultural number-crunchers at The Pudding re-addressed one of their most popular projects, an analysis of who has the largest vocabulary in hip-hop first tabulated in 2014. Based on popular demand, the retake includes two topmost contenders excluded from the original count. While Wu-Tang Clan and its members Ghostface Killa, GZA, RZA, and Raekwon previously helped define the genre's richest lyricists, the new arrivals redefined the top of the updated list.
The Pudding's quantitative methodology deletes apostrophes and treats variations as distinct "tokens," for example "shorty" versus "shawty." Each artist's first 35,000 words as recording artists were used for comparison. Ghostface Killa and RZA share the range of 5,675–6,050 distinct words/tokens along with other artists including Blackalicious and the Roots. The next highest range is 6,050–6,425, where Wu-Tang Clan as a group sits beside GZA as a solo artist, as well as Jedi Mind Tricks and MF Doom. In the 6,425+ zone, newcomers Aesop Rock and Busdriver are above them all for richness of vocabulary.
Topping the updated list with 7,879 unique vocabulary tokens is Aesop Rock, who was excluded from the first count as too obscure but included in this round based on feedback from Reddit's hip-hop community. Beginning his career in the New York City area, he is credited with 10 full-length albums of which six made it onto the Billboard 200. Still underground despite his popularity, Aesop Rock is a prolific collaborator, an avid skateboarder and received a "music by" credit for his work on the soundtrack of the 2017 action thriller Bushwick.
In second place, with 7,324 unique tokens from his first 35,000 recorded lyrics, is Busdriver, who received the most requests from readers for inclusion. Like Aesop Rock, Busdriver has released 10 full-length albums but is perhaps even more underground, still. Based in Los Angeles, Allmusic.com described his intellectual raps as employing "dizzying elocution that would tongue-tie even the fiercest auctioneer."
While The Pudding quotes a Jay-Z lyric suggesting high-vocab lyrics are less commercial, they also warn against treating lower numbers as "dumbing down" lyricism. The column also provides a different perspective by noting that hip-hop uses more diverse vocabulary than country or rock. The influence of pop-music formats reduces richness of vocabulary in general to support more melodic genres' balance of simplicity, repetition and song structure. The comparison between rappers is most interesting because hip-hop is inherently the most vocabulary-rich musical genre.
See how your favorite rappers rank at The Pudding and mouseover artists' photos for detailed results.