Underground to Mainstream - what "sells" in Rap?

Yung Pug

Yung Pug
June 17, 2015

I was alive when Eminem's Lose Yourself became the first Rap song to win an Oscar. It's lyrical depth and complexity, baffled and inspired me! So when I see songs like CoCo, No Type, All Gold Everything dominate Billboard Charts lately, I cannot help but feel for the state of lyricism in Rap. It almost feels like Rap sold its soul for catchy beats and lines as it made inroads into pop. In fact, French Montana went on to say "All lyrical rappers I know are broke" in 2014 (makes sense because he is pretty rich). Several rappers have echoed similar sentiments and most recently GZA has weighed in as well.

"All lyrical rappers I know are broke" - French Montana

So just how much lyricism is lost in transition from Underground to Mainstream Rap? Also, are there any lyrical heavyweights who actually manage to maintain a wide appeal? These burning questions led myself and Dr. Ostrich to create Rapalytics, a website that lets people explore and compare lyrical features of rappers and their albums. With over 10,000 songs from 150 artists and counting, it is the first browsable and interactive analytics website for Rap lyrics!

To understand how lyricism correlates with the popularity of a rapper, lets compare the lyrical features of 30 popular mainstream and underground rappers!
(Popularity is measured by looking at the artist's YouTube plays, Last.fm plays, Facebook likes and Twitter followers.)

Mainstream Rappers

Kanye West
Lil Wayne
50 Cent
Jay Z
Snoop Dogg
Wiz Khalifa
Nicki Minaj

Underground Rappers

Aesop Rock
MF Doom
Immortal Technique
Big L
Sage Francis
Gang Starr
Kool Keith
Masta Ace
Joel Ortiz
Kool G Rap
Tech N9ne

(This list is only a sample. You can click on any of the following images to navigate to the interactive visualization where you can hover to get more details or click to go the artist page. You can also add/remove artists, play with the features and share the visualization you create!)

Let the Battle begin!

1. Vocabulary & Word density

Vocabulary is a powerful asset in a Rappers arsenal. Many rappers flaunt their lyrical prowess by using big words embedded in complex rhymes. Rapalytics measures vocabulary as the number of unique words (only common nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives) in a sample of 20,000 words.

To visualize the relationship of popularity vs. vocabulary, we will use a slopegraph. On the left half, we have all the rappers arranged by their normalized popularity scores (higher = more popular). Naturally, we can expect all the mainstream rappers to be way ahead in popularity over the underground rappers. On the right half, we have the same rappers arranged in a similar way by their normalized vocabulary size. A line is drawn for every rapper from his position on the left side to his position on the right! So a line that goes from top left to bottom right means that the rapper is popular but has a poor vocabulary. Similarly, a line going from the bottom left to the top right indicates that a not-so-popular rapper has a big vocabulary! Now lets take a look at the image!

(Artists who do not have a minimum of 20,000 words are whitened on the left side and absent on the right)

Popularity vs Vocabulary

(Click the image to go to the interactive visualization)

It is clear that the underground rappers dominate in this aspect with Aesop Rock leading the pack! Another, feature of interest is word density. Word density simply measures the average number of words per verse. Higher word density means the rapper is very "wordy". Lets look at the same visualization with word density on the right side.

Popularity vs Word Density

(Click the image to go to the interactive visualization)

Again, the inverse relationship is very clear. Underground rappers tend to be far more "wordy" than mainstream rappers. As Rap heads mainstream, the musical element gets stronger and the word count drops!

2. Rhymes

Rap is almost synonymous with rhymes. It is quite clear from the image below that there is no clear distinction between mainstream and underground rappers when it comes to rhymes! Rapalytics measures rhyming density as the total number of rhymed syllables (multi-syllable rhymes + mono-syllable end rhymes) over the total number of syllables. The standard deviation is actually ~0.02 (range 0-1) which shows how close this is!

Popularity vs Rhymes

(Click the image to go to the interactive visualization)

3. Similes

When it comes to similes, there is a slight tendency for lyrics-heavy rappers to pack in more similes per verse but there are also some outliars like Lil Wayne who is known for his exaggerated analogies!

Popularity vs Similes

(Click the image to go to the interactive visualization)

4. Profanity

Last but not least, does popularity affect the level of profanity? One would expect that with great fame comes great responsibility and that underground usually has more freedom. While it does hold in some cases, we can see that Lil wayne has one of the highest levels of profanity and Aesop Rock is one of the cleanest rappers!

Popularity vs Profanity

(Click the image to go to the interactive visualization)

To conclude, while these features are crude and superficial, they give a little glimpse of what mainstream music expects from Rap. Many rappers adapt to make money and many choose to stay true to the game. Only few possess the ability to transcend boundaries and conquer both mainstream and underground!

"Oh, he's too mainstream.", Well, that's what they do, when they get jealous, they confuse it
"It's not hip hop, it's pop.", 'Cause I found a hella way to fuse it, - Rap God, Eminem

Tagged: lyricism underground rap

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