Political Words & Phrases in Hip Hop

Recently, my wife discovered the Rap Stats tool at Rap Genius, which plots the relative frequency of words and phrases in rap songs from 1988 to the present.  Of course, when she showed it to me, my immediate thought was to start plotting political words and phrases and see if we could pick up any patterns over time.  The first thing we did was take a look at the relative frequency of the names of U.S. presidents from 1988 to the present.

As you can see, the patterns are basically as one would expect. Reagan isn’t mentioned much, possibly because the first year for which data are available was his last full year in office (although he seems to have enjoyed something of a resurgence lately). George H.W. Bush drives a a lot mentions of “Bush” in the late 1980s and early 1990s; Bush is used far less during the Clinton years, but nears its previous levels during George W. Bush’s presidency, particularly during his second term.  Mentions of Clinton max out around 1994, but strangely never reach the levels achieved by other Presidents.  (This may have something to do with the seeming drought of political content in hip hop that occurred in the mid to late 1990s, which I discuss in further detail below.)  Finally, Obama bursts onto the scene in 2005 but seems to be experiencing a bit of a drop-off since 2010.

The distinctive pattern of Obama’s appearance in rap lyrics gave us another idea: an examination of lyrical path-dependence.  That is, when certain words suddenly become more relevant for lyricists, do words and phrases that rhyme with that word also become more common?  Based on the graphs below, it would appear either that the Dalai Lama, commas, and llamas have become far more interesting to hip hop artists since 2005 or that Barack Obama’s rapid rise to the presidency simply led lyricists to use words that rhyme with his last name more often.

Of course, one can use this tool to look at more substantive questions.  In the blog post announcing Rap Stats, Rap Genius Editor-in-Chief Shawn Setaro raises the possibility that word counts can be used to analyze the degree to which the profit motive led artists to embrace the “gangsta” identity as hip hop became an economic force in the 1990s, while simultaneously dropping challenges to the “white supremacist capitalist patriarchical” status quo.  Setaro demonstrates this with plots of “black” (to proxy Afrocentrism) and “wisdom” (to proxy the influence of the Five-Percent Nation), each of which fell out of favor to a large degree during the 1990s.  He then contrasts the decline in these phrases with the rise of phrases associated with the East Coast/West Coast rap wars of the 1990s.  The following graphs represent my attempts to replicate his results using other phrases that might proxy challenges to white privelage and the political status quo, as well as identities other than that of the gangsta.

For those of us whose interest in politics was at least partially inspired by artists like Public Enemy, KRS-One, Mos Def, or Talib Kweli, these plots present a bleak reality.  Across all graphs, it appears we are getting fewer songs like “Rebel Without A Pause,” “You Must Learn,” and “Fight the Power” today than we got back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that political messages have completely fallen out of fashion. While the growth of hip hop as an economic force may have initially reduced the relative frequency of political messages, it would appear that the advocacy of both non-violent and institutionalized political strategies may be on the rise.  Indeed, mentions of terms associated with electoral democracy have largely risen in the 2000s, as have mentions of Martin Luther King.

Of course, humans are adept at seeing patterns where none exist; further analysis would be necessary to determine if any of the stories presented here hold up against alternative explanations.  Still, the Rap Stats tool is a lot of fun for music fans.  I hope we see more lyrical analysis tools like this in the future.

Chad Clay

About Chad Clay

K. Chad Clay is an assistant professor in the Department of International Affairs at the University of Georgia and co-director of the CIRI Human Rights Data Project. His research focuses on the impact of international factors on human rights practices, political violence, and economic development. He received his PhD in political science from Binghamton University in 2012.

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