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 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.This post originally appeared at The Quantitative Peace, where the author is a regular contributor.

Rap Lyrics and presidents

via Rap Genius
Comparing mentions of Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama in rap lyrics from 1988 to present. (Click to enlarge)

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.

Obama Rhyma

via Rap Genius
You say, “Obama,” I say… (Click to enlarge)

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. See bell hooks via Rap GeniusSetaro 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 privilege 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.

Rap lyrics socially conscious

via Rap Genius
Frequency of phrases that indicate challenges to the status quo in recent rap lyrics. (Click to enlarge)

Anti-status quo rap phraseology

via Rap Genius
More anti-status quo rap phraseology. (Click to enlarge)

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.

Rap and voting

via Rap Genius
Though rap music has long been commercialized, note a rise in mentions of mainstream political activities like voting. (Click to enlarge)

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. disclaimerStill, 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.

See The Quantitative Peace for more “Explorations of Empirical and Formal Research in International Relations and Comparative Politics.”

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • Carolyn Groom

    Thank heavens rap singers do not speak for society as a whole. If we are going to do a comparison chart on the trends of musical lyrics let us include words from pop artists, country singers, rhythm and blues and of course jazz. I’m sure I’m forgetting several genres. We could also just graph out the words love and hate to measure public concerns and trends. We could also search using words like deficit, lies, hysteria, shut down and impeach.

    • Dick Dracula

      Rap singers are just as entitled to speak for society as anyone else. Discounting their views in favor of pop artists and country singers (and the more-palatable-to-white-people rhythm and blues and jazz you so carefully added to avoid seeming racist) seems pretty rude. Well, cheers.

  • TS

    Ah, the race card. Nothing kills debate more effectively. To me, this fear of Hip Hop is more about gender and generation than race.

    The hip-hot blog MC Report shows that the largest rap demographic has become white suburban males, ages 13 to 25. Bakari Kitwana’s “Why White Kids Love Hip Hop” explains the appeal. As hip hop diversifies, its political references have come to reflect the angst of wizzle Meridian than bust-a-cap Detroit.
    But let’s not make too much of words extracted for context. Fox News probably says Obama more than MSNBC. Obama, for Fox, is a code word for the enemy just as “capitalist” is meant as an insult when used by the other side.
    Rap, likewise, is a rebellion of code words inverted. “Racist” (as in the Hip Hop group “Das Racist”) has emerged as pride. Bad-is-good works such as “nigga” “bitch” “queer” “dope” and “sick” defy baby-boom politeness. And that, of course, is the point.

    “We are not one in the same nigga,” shouts Gunplay, the Floridian rapper. “I’m f*ckin insane f*ck is you saying your ass be doing the same sh*t, not doing what you saying, dang.”

    Word up?