Most of us understand that popular music is popular because its lyrics are simple and easy to repeat, a driving factor in achieving that communal feeling we as humans are constantly longing for. While there's nothing inherently wrong with our tendency to group thoughts or sounds that are easily shared, I also find it alarming that popular music—essentially the benchmark of collective entertainment standards—is rarely able to produce lyrical content that exceeds a fourth-grade reading level.
Last year, DJBooth managing editor Brendan Varan highlighted a study that examined the reading level required to understand the lyrics in popular music. I suggest reading the entire article, but to summarize: lyrical complexity has been on a steady 10-year decline, and that particular study rated R&B/hip-hop as dead last in complexity.
A new study from BuzzHarmony, however, analyzed nearly 500 songs from the Billboard Hot 100 Chart from the last six decades (1960 to 2016) and produced a list of the top 15 lyricists in popular music. Their study shows that while lyrics in popular music are still technically dumber over the last decade than they had been prior, generally speaking, the vocabulary of popular music has doubled over the past 50 years, and hip-hop is leading the charge.
To complete this study, the BuzzHarmony team took one week's worth of songs found the Billboard Hot 100 Chart from each of the last six decades and analyzed their lyrical content using a Python readability library to determine the average number of “difficult words” used by artists in each given decade.
To clarify, the study defines “difficult words” as, “words not on a list of the Dale-Chall readability formula, which uses a list of approximately 3,000 words that groups of fourth-grade American students could reliably understand.”
When it comes to the number of difficult words used by artists, hip-hop is clearly at the forefront with T.I., Drake and—of course—Coolio taking the top three spots, all averaging above 70 difficult words in their songs that reached Billboard’s Top 100. The study cites terms like "relationship," "faithful," "finesse," "impressions," "diploma" and "hustler" as being the fuel behind these three artists’ bump in complexity.
The study then examined which songs employed the most and least difficult words in their lyrics, and in that category, hip-hop absolutely dominated.
As you can see, there’s only one song on the list of “most difficult words” that isn't hip-hop—Johnny Cash’s “One Piece At A Time”—while hip-hop is non-existent in the list of “fewest difficult words.” Their findings also show that while we might be in the midst of a decade-long slump, popular music still contains double the number of difficult words on average than it did in the '60s. So, we’re not exactly in Idiocracy territory just yet.
While the study doesn’t draw any outright correlation here, I think it’s worth noting that the lyrical complexity of popular music really started hiking in the mid-'80s, which is right around the time hip-hop started gaining some real traction in the U.S. I’m just saying, maybe hip-hop has been a major driving force behind an increase in lyrical complexity in popular music, and even if it hasn’t, we’re definitely holding it down for lyrical complexity as a genre. So, kudos to hip-hop.
Of course, this is just a small study that doesn’t take into account the value or purpose of the words used in music, simply the objective difficulty of them, so by no means is this an authoritative finding.
It does, however, offer a fun look into the trends in popular music, and it gives us some solid debate fuel for when someone tries to tell us hip-hop isn’t intelligent music. I will pull out these charts, don’t test me.
Photo Credit: VH1