Image by Matt Daniels
"To be fly, or not to be fly? That is the question."
In a quest to determine who has the largest vocabulary in hip-hop, Matt Daniels used an unlikely starting point for what became a massive undertaking. The self-described designer, coder, and data scientist operated under the popular assumption that William Shakespeare had the largest vocabulary ever, with 28,829 words used over his entire oeuvre. Daniels used that data to help him determine the vocabulary sizes of 85 of the most prolific rappers ever. He compared the number of unique words in their first 35,000 lyrics to the first 5,000 words of seven Shakespeare plays and the first 35,000 words of Herman Melville's literary classic Moby Dick.
Which rapper finished at the top of the pack with a whopping 7,392 unique words, over 2,000 more than old Billy himself used in a handful of tragic plays? Fans of the Rhymesayers rap collective won't be surprised to learn that it was the off-kilter wordsmith Aesop Rock who beat all of his peers, with Wu-Tang member GZA and rap legend Kool Keith rounding out the top three. Outkast, Nas, and the Beastie Boys also hovered in Shakespeare's territory, while Drake and Jay Z fell short of the Hamlet scribe.
Women rappers like Nicki Minaj, Missy Elliott, and Lil Kim also failed to reach Shakespearean heights of word diversity, while many of their female counterparts didn't even make the list, proving that hip-hop is still very much a boys club.
A very smart boys club.
Daniels' impressive undertaking is further proof that despite the fact the art form is often associated with sex and violence, rapping is a highly intellectual pursuit. Academia agrees, based on courses like "English 2169: Jay Z and Kanye West," which is offered at the University of Missouri. After all, Shakespeare's work wasn't exactly PG, either. Check out the rest of of Mr. Daniels' fascinating study here.
Photo: REX USA/URMAN LIONEL.