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Which hip-hop artists know more words than Shakespeare?

A data scientist studied how the vocabularies of popular hip-hop artists stack up against the Bard. The results are awesome.

Aesop Rock image by Scott Marceau, CC BY-SA 3.0; Shakespeare image public domain

When considering the phrase, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day", the logical progression doesn't usually lead to "dolla dolla bills, y'all" -- but at the very heart of great hip-hop is clever linguistic trickery, much the same as it is for Shakespeare.

But who's got the top chops when it comes to vocabulary? That was the question posed by programmer and data scientist Matt Daniels. And, as someone with an analytical mind, he set about making his case with hard data to back it up.

A 1975 study puts the total number of unique words used by Shakespeare at 31,534. Daniels is basing his analysis on a count of 28,829 unique words. Either way, estimates put the total number of words in Shakespeare's vocabulary at somewhere between 66,000 and 100,000 words. (According to vocabulary website Test Your Vocab, the average adult vocabulary is between 20,000 and 35,000 words, just for reference.)

"I decided to compare this data point against the most famous artists in hip hop," Daniels wrote on his website. "I used each artist's first 35,000 lyrics. That way, prolific artists, such as Jay-Z, could be compared to newer artists, such as Drake."

Matt Daniels

He took the first 5000 from seven of Shakespeare's works: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Macbeth, As You Like It, Winter's Tale, and Troilus and Cressida. He also used the first 35,000 words of Herman Melville's Moby Dick as a second data point.

For the hip hop artists, he used a sample of 35,000 words from their albums, EPs and mix tapes. He then used a form of lexical analysis called token analysis to break down where the 85 different artists surveyed fall on the scale, counting how many of those 35,000 words are unique.

Shakespeare used 5170 unique words. Melville used 6022. In the top three places were Aesop Rock, GZA and Kool Keith, with 7392, 6426 and 6238 unique words respectively.

Actually, it was Wu-Tang Clan whose placement was possibly the most impressive. The entire group came in at sixth place, with individual members almost all coming in the top 20 -- the aforementioned GZA, RZA in 7th, followed by Ghostface Killah in 9th, Raekwon in 20th and Method Man in 23rd.

In all, there are 16 hip-hop artists with a stronger vocabulary than Shakespeare according to Daniels' analysis, and three better than Melville.

There's a much longer breakdown of the results on Daniels' web page. Next time someone tells you hip hop is stupid, you know where to point them.