Rap Music’s 10 Decade-Defining Keywords

We attempt to identify the keywords from the last 10 years of rap lyrics, which informed the genre’s ethos, trends, and ideas.
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In rap, words are deeper than rhymes and turns of phrases. Sure, stringing together sonically-pleasing syllables is essential to the craft, but the stories and messages underlying the slang hold power to change the culture. 

Over the past decade, rap lyrics were both the anthem of a movement and “The Motto” of a generation. As hip-hop’s influence dominated American culture—rap officially became the popular music genre in 2017—it became increasingly imperative to pay close attention to its language, the essential building blocks that form philosophies and propel the art form forward.

Before we dive into this decade’s Hip-Hop Dictionary, we want to make clear this is not an attempt to discover new slang unique to the 2010s. Nor is this article merely a list of the most used words of the decade. What follows is an attempt to identify the keywords from the last ten years of rap lyrics, which informed the genre’s ethos, trends, and ideas.

Editor’s Note: We pulled word usage statistics from the lyrics found in every song to reach the top 10 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chart from January 2010 to December 2019.

I

/ī/

Pronoun
Uses:
10,414
Related words: You (7,116), My (4,613), Me (4,014)

The most used word of the decade, “I” is a personal pronoun employed to refer to himself or herself in the process of storytelling, flexing, soul searching, etc...

Over 10,000 uses of the word “I” reveal practitioners were focused predominantly on self. In many cases, artists rap in the first-person to assert their elevated status, like Drake’s self-congratulatory bar “They ain’t make me what I am, they just found me like this” (“0 to 100/The Catch Up”) or Nicki Minaj’s boast, “I am not fly, I am levitation / I represent an entire generation” (“Fly”).

More important than the bravado, however, is the inwardly-focused posture hip-hop assumed in the 2010s. “I am a sinner who’s probably gonna sin again,” Kendrick Lamar raps on “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.” Equally vulnerable is J. Cole, who, on 2016’s “Change,” raps, “I sit in silence and and find whenever I meditate / My fears alleviate, my tears evaporate.” Hip-hop expanded space for self-expression, reflection, and conversation in the 2010s, offering an essential example for the culture to follow as life becomes more connected and transparent than ever.

Bitch

/biCH/

Noun
Uses:
1,039
Related words: Baby (804), Girl (558), Pussy (229)

  1. A derogatory term directed most often at women, though occasionally directed at men seen as inferiors by alpha males.
  2. A situation that causes frustration or grief (i.e., “Life’s a bitch”).

It’s telling that the most used word for a woman in hip-hop is “bitch.” Misogyny is one of the genre’s most prevalent plagues, as rappers often go unchecked when delivering irreverent lyrics like “My bitches do it til they suck the brown off” (Lil Wayne, “Miss Me”).

On the flip side, women derogatorily use “bitch” to assert their dominance, like Cardi B’s opening jab, “Lil’ bitch, you can’t fuck with me if you wanted to” (“Bodak Yellow”). While this usage may complicate the discourse, it does nothing to absolve men of misogyny or anyone of arrogance.

Love

/ləv/

Noun
Uses:
857
Related words: Like (2,658), Hate (104), Sex (51)

  1. The most prevalent emotion in hip-hop, “Love” is a deep affection—whether romantic, familial, unconditional or brotherly—for another.
  2. An overused word that loses its impact when applied to a general fondness for material things.

Verb

  1. The act of feeling one of the above emotions.

Artists have written songs about love since Biblical times. Still, however, songwriters interpret the word with varying levels of sanctity. “You’re such a fuckin’ ho / I love it,” Kanye West and Lil Pump sang on their raunchy 2018 hit, “I Love It.” Fetty Wap was similarly superficial on his 2014 hit “Trap Queen,” dropping the heartfelt line, “Man, I swear I love her how she work the damn pole.”

Love, real love, runs deep in rap, too. As DJBooth’s John Noire recently broke down, J. Cole filled all his releases in the 2010s with different manifestations of love, like on “She’s Mine, Pt. 1,” where he has “fallen in love for the first time.” Kendrick Lamar went on a journey of self-love on his GRAMMY-winning sophomore album To Pimp a Butterfly, culminating in the penultimate anthem asserting, “I love myself.” Hip-hop’s desire for love is often exploited by “fake people showing fake love,” and yet, love always remains.

Real

/ˈrē(ə)l/

Adjective
Uses:
400
Related words: Fake (60), Trust (60), True (42)

  1. Existing in truth; not fake or imaginary.
  2. Authentic to one’s true self, not fronting or faking one’s identity.

Authenticity is key in hip-hop. “I just keep it real, I don’t fake well / N****s say they on, well I can’t tell,” Wiz Khalifa raps on his 2016 hit “Bake Sale.” Start faking, boasting without merit, or hiring ghostwriters, and you’re sure to be called out by someone like YG. “Separatin’ the real from the fake / The fake from the real,” raps the Compton artist on his 2014, Drake-assisted record, “Who Do You Love?

Real is loyalty; real is trustworthy. It’s why so many music fans gravitate to hip-hop—to escape the facade of entertainment culture and interact with another human expressing real thoughts and emotions.

Young

/yəNG/

Adjective
Uses:
227
Related words: Free (139), Old (98), Youth (5)

  1. Wild and free; full of youthful vigor for life.
  2. Of an early age.

“Wu-Tang is for the children,” as they say. Though the Shaolin MCs may not be as youthful as they once were, rap remains a young man’s game. Just look at some of the most popular stage names: Young Thug, Young M.A, Youngboy Never Broke Again, Young Money. Hip-hop is growing up, allowing us to glean life lessons from its legends, but it remains a celebration of youth and vivacity—see Wiz Khalifa and Snoop Dogg’s 2011 hit “Young, Wild & Free”—as well as an exploration of the mistakes made while growing up.

I’m just young, rich, and tasteless,” Pusha-T raps on Kanye West’s “Runaway.” He reveled in douchebaggery and immature relationships. Being young isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and hip-hop often serves up that reminder. It’s full of trials, tribulations, shortcomings, and heartache. Still, there’s freedom in youth that remains at the heart of a rapper’s delight.

Die

/dī/

Verb
Uses:
211
Related Words: Live (132), Kill (115), Death (28)

  1. To lose one’s life; a subject that provokes much anxiety in hip-hop, often implying violence, injustice, or substance abuse.

The subject of death in hip-hop is difficult to broach. Too often in recent years, we’ve mourned the losses of artists taken too early. Mac Miller. Nipsey Hussle. Lil Peep. XXXTentacion. Juice WRLD. The list goes on. In the midst of these losses, Lil Uzi Vert gave voice to the paralyzing feeling of loss and mournful depression, singing, “I am not afraid to die / Push me to the edge / All my friends are dead.”

Death looms over hip-hop, which drove Kendrick Lamar, JAY-Z, and others to worry about the legacy they leave behind. For many, death isn’t just an abstract idea but a personal, life-shattering experience. Hip-hop gave Chicago emcee Saba the opportunity to cope with devastating change, to process grief, and to immortalize pain—a process he chronicles on 2018’s Care For Me. Though the heaviness of death is crippling, Saba finds peace in songs like “Heaven All Around Me,” reminding listeners we never venture life and death in vain.

High

/hī/

Adjective
Uses:
204
Related Words: Faded (88), Lean (51), Drunk (49)

  1. Feeling euphoric, whether encouraged by drugs or a general elation (i.e., high on life).
  2. Tall, relating to stacks, bricks, etc.

While marijuana and alcohol have been mainstays in rap lyrics for decades, the 2010s experienced a dangerous turn toward prescription drugs like Percocet, Xanax, codeine, promethazine, etc. It’s a strange time when the hook “Percocets, molly, Percocets” can reach number two on a Billboard chart. Rappers like Future aren’t (often) in the business of glorifying drug usage, though. As Craig Jenkins recently wrote for Vulture, “Future uses [drugs] to cope, and it sounds like he hates it.”

Travis Scott expresses the desire to escape drug usage on “Stargazing”: “I was always high up on the lean / Then this girl came here to save my life.” On his recent single, “HIGHEST IN THE ROOM,” Travis again shares his anxieties, rapping, “I’m the highest in the room / Hope I make it outta here.” The escapism of getting high is not something rappers aspired to in the 2010s; it’s something they settled for. It’s a reaction to the broken world, a call for help, and a desire for change.

Trap

/trap/

Noun
Uses: 72
Related Words: Racks, (148), Skrrt (84), Bando (14)

  1. The dominating subgenre of hip-hop in the 2010s, often marked by rickety hi-hats, murky synthesizers, and triplet flows.
  2. The location for a drug deal.

Though trap music predates the 2010s, it reached its peak this past decade when it rippled out from the American South and affected the sound of hip-hop and pop across the world. The sonics have outgrown its inspiration, but Atlantan artists like Migos and Future continue to detail drug deals on hits like “Bad and Boujee”: “Yeah, that way, I used to trap by the subway (trappin') / Yeah, that way, young n**** trap with the AK.

Just as rap fans in the ‘90s fetishized the mafioso, rap fans today fetishize the trap villain. Even so, hip-hop gave artists like 2 Chainz and 21 Savage an opportunity to escape the trap, with the latter rapping, “I done made the chart, ‘member I used to trap hard / Livin’ like a rockstar.”

Gucci

/Go͞ochē/

Proper noun
Uses:
95
Related Words: Diamonds (109), Bentley (46), Louis (20)

  1. Hip-hop’s most referenced luxury brand of the 2010s, specializing in high-end fashion items.

In addition to being the namesake of Atlanta’s Radric Davis, Gucci has been rappers’ favorite go-to brand for flexing status and represents hip-hop’s devotion to consumerism. “When I die, bury me inside that Gucci store,” 2 Chainz raps on “Birthday Song.”

We can’t discuss Gucci without referencing Lil Pump’s excessively repetitive 2017 hit “Gucci Gang,” which encapsulates America’s hedonistic obsession with materiality and commercialism. The “Harverd Dropout” probably wasn’t trying to make a ruminative statement on consumer culture; however, Childish Gambino’s satire “This Is America” invokes the designer brand to greater effect, creating a nuanced discussion that demanded the world’s attention in early 2018.

Gang

/ɡaNG/

Noun
Uses: 145
Related Words: Family (42), Loyalty (40), Crew (36)

  1. A person’s inner circle, worthy of trust, loyalty, and camaraderie.

Though popularized by gangsta rap pioneers like N.W.A. to project the menace and ambitious attitude of the late ’80s, the usage of the word “gang” today doesn’t necessitate violent tendencies. Instead, it evokes hip-hop’s sense of camaraderie, loyalty, and community. Take 21 Savage’s late 2018 single, “a lot”: “Gang vs. the world / Me and my dawg, it was us.”

With Rich Gang, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, Pivot Gang, Young Money, Dreamville, A$AP Mob, and more, the 2010s were dominated by rap collectives who proved that strength is undoubtedly found in numbers. Hip-hop is community; a tight-knit gang playing a game that is anything but a zero-sum.

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