A Brief History Of Profanity In Rap Lyrics
From the BestTickets.com blog by Andrew Powell-Morse, Head of Data Analysis and Editorial Content.
Flashback to the Bronx in 1973. DJ Kool Herc and MC Coke La Rock are busy laying the groundwork for what will become one of the most popular music genres in the world: Hip-Hop. La Rock, the original MC, initially performed his raps out of view of the audience. This peculiar tactic left audiences scratching their heads, curious about the identity of their favorite local performer.
It is quite remarkable how much hip-hop has changed since those early days more than 40 years ago. Today, the best MCs are more than just popular – they are pop culture superstars. For them, there is no hiding from the audience. Everything they do or say is visible to the public. This intense exposure is magnified when it comes to the distribution of their music. Eminem, the best-selling hip-hop artist of all time, has sold more than 100-million albums worldwide. That puts him in the sales realm of classic artists like Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Rod Stewart, Prince and many more. The massive influence wielded by rap mega-stars is undeniable.
As we all know, a common ingredient in many rap lyrics is shameless profanity. No word is off limits. With f-bombs and assorted slurs streaming through popular music, it’s no shock that some people are up in arms against rap. As mentioned before, these artists reach a huge audience. Is it appropriate for them to be spitting profanity-laced lyrics to the world? This study won’t be answering any questions of morality, but it should give others some fuel to form their own opinions.
We examined profanity in popular rap music since 1985. The key word here is “popular”. To do this, we selected the five albums from each year that we deemed as the most influential or important. Total sales, artist name recognition, and album hit density all factored into our album choices. Ultimately though, it was our own perceived popularity of each album that determined if it made the cut. If we missed some of your faves, we urge you to let us know in the comments and we’ll consider any viable suggestions. You can see the full list of albums by downloading the data from the Best Tickets Data Collective. For this study, we counted each instance of profanity in every song of every album. Without further adieu, the results.
**Please note. The primary focus of this article is explicit language. Though we censored the words to a degree, this article might not be for you if you are sensitive to profanity.**
Let’s familiarize ourselves with what we consider profanity in this study. The chart below shows our cuss-word list and the number of times each one showed up in our study.
The albums we studied contain an average of 218 uses of profanity. Now I am a fan of most rap. I have listened to a ton of rap music from every era and I understand that there is a certain degree of profanity that is expected with the genre. 218 cuss words per album seems like A LOT. I was quite surprised to learn this figure. Overall, we examined 2,295 songs. On average a song from our study contained 13.76 instances of profanity. While this is essentially the same information presented differently, it seems more reasonable to me than 218 cuss words per album. Apparently, however, 218 really isn’t that much compared to some albums. Below, the filthiest albums to pop up in our entire study.
Some serious props are in order for the late Tupac Shakur, who put out the #1 and #2 most profanity-laced albums we examined. Specifically, these albums are bolstered by Tupac’s favoritism of the f-word and the n-word. The majority of the top-ten most profane albums come from true hip-hop kingpins. Of course, Tupac is considered one of the best, if not the very best rapper of all time. The same goes for the Notorious B.I.G. who drops in at #5. We also see NWA and Dr. Dre, both of whom set the standard for gangsta rap, and Eminem’s rap group D12 on our list. All hip-hop royalty.
Though the albums above contain more profanity than any others in the study, the list of albums with the highest number of cuss words per song (CWPS) tells a slightly different story.
It may come as a surprise to you that Too $hort, of all people, is #1 on this list. His 1985 album Raw, Uncut & X-Rated has only five songs and in those five songs, he manages to say b*tch a whopping 128 times. That’s 25 b*tches per song! In total, the album contains a total of 265 cuss words. We also see some new faces. The Ghetto Boys and Scarface make the list, as does the talented gangsta rapper Kool G Rap. 49.8 cuss words per song is approaching flat-out ridiculous, but some of these albums are undisputed classics. Are listeners just completely desensitized to profanity in rap? We’re talking about some serious swearing here.
Overall, the list above does a good job of covering the most profane artists in the rap game, but in case you were curious, here they are ordered from 1-10.
Here we see the Geto Boys and Scarface in the top two spots. For those unfamiliar with the group, the Geto Boys most famous member is Scarface. He really lets the swearing flow freely. His word of choice is f*ck, followed by n*gga, the two most popular words in our study.
Juvenile has also popped up on each of the last three albums. His preferred profanity is the n-word by a wide margin. He used it 217 times on his 1998 album 400 Degreez. The most profane song on that album, however is “Juvenile on Fire”, which features 91 instances of profanity overall, but only nine n-words. Speaking of profane songs, we have all the worst offenders lined up below. Click the chart to enlarge.
Many of these songs even have profanity in the title, setting the stage for the ensuing madness. I do feel the need to mention a particular song that was not used in our study, but is regarded by many to be the most profanity-laced rap song in history. Lil’ Jon’s “Real N*gga Roll Call” featuring Ice Cube from 2004 is mindbogglingly vulgar. In total it contains more than 329 cuss words, including: 165 n*ggas, 61 f*cks, 33 p*ssys, 25 b*tches, 21 asses, 17 hos, 4 skeets, and 3 sh*ts. It really is utterly ridiculous. I can’t with a clear conscience recommend that you listen to it, but I will provide a link for the lazy.
Now that we’ve looked at the worst offenders, let’s take a broader look at profanity in rap music as a whole. In the next section, we’ll examine how profanity has changed over time in the rap game.
Profanity in Rap Over Time
The dots on the graph above display the actual measure of CWPS each year. The dashed line averages the current year and the year before it, visually representing the trend of profanity over the years. The years on the chart with the lowest occurrence of profanity are, unsurprisingly, the early years. In 1985, Too $hort released the ridiculous Raw, Uncut & X-Rated. With that album removed, the average in 1985 drops to 1 CWPS.
The second-largest increase in the occurrence of profanity came between 1990 and 1991. Smack dab in the middle of the Golden Age of hip-hop, we find names like Ice Cube, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, De La Soul and NWA scattered about this era. In 1991, gangsta rap really began to take off with Ice Cube’s Death Certificate and NWA’s Efil4Zaggin, both released that year. Profanity increased gradually as artists like Kool G. Rap, Dr. Dre, Redman, Snoop Dogg, Nas, Biggie, Scarface, Tupac, and Outkast rose to popularity.
1997 featured one of the top three highest CWPS rates in our study (18.25). ’97 featured albums from the Notorious B.I.G, Common, Busta Rhymes, the Wu-Tang Clan, and O.C. We reach the apex of profanity in 2001, when CWPS reached 22.66. Many of you are probably thinking Eminem is responsible for this. A good guess, as this was certainly during the prime of his career, but there were no albums by Eminem included in our study for 2001. The official 2001 album list is as follows: Pain is Love – Ja Rule, Stillmatic – Nas, The Blueprint – Jay-Z, Until the End of Time – Tupac, Word of Mouf – Ludacris. Tupac and Luda did most of the heavy lifting here, averaging 30.86 and 27.21 CWPS respectively on the two albums.
In 2002, things came back to earth and CWPS steadily decreased until 2006, when for the first time since 1990, profanity fell below 10 CWPS. 2006, the tamest year in more than a decade, saw Lupe Fiasco’s Food and Liquor (which sports a mere 1.76 CWPS) and The Roots’ Game Theory (which comes in at 3.54 CWPS). 2006 to 2007 marks the largest increase in our study, 8.82 to 18.88 CWPS. 2007 to 2008, on the other hand, marks the greatest decrease from 18.88 to 10.51 CWPS. The amount of profanity generally increases over the next five years. If lyrically intense groups like OFWGKTA continue their rise to popularity, you can expect to see a steady increase in profanity in the coming years.
Below you can see how the use of each word increased year over year. We did not include some of the less popular words because their presence on the graph would be so insignificant that you would barely be able to see them.
Let’s drill down even more and take an in-depth look at specific words. For starters, the most popular cuss word in rap music: the n-word.
The n-word is an incredibly popular choice among rappers. It hasn’t always been that way though. In the eighties, there were almost no occurrences of the n-word in songs. Thanks to Eazy-E and NWA, 1988 was the first year the word averaged more than one appearance per song. From 1991 onward, the average n*gga frequency would never drop below two occurrences per song. The first album to use the word excessively was Efil4Zaggin by NWA. The album averaged 14.67 uses of the n-word per song. Since 1996, the n-word has been on a steady, predictable decline save for one above-average year in 2001, and another in 2007. Coincidentally, those two years are #1 and #2 in n-word frequency. It is worth noting that 1996 marked the peak of the dispute between anti-rap activist C. Delores Tucker and Death Row Records. After that year the n-word went on a noticeable decline. Tucker never directly prevented the sale of albums, but she may have gotten her message across to discourage some future rappers from using the word.
With 12.92 occurrences per song, Tupac’s Until the End of Time led the charge for use of the n-word in its peak year, 2001. That year’s average of 8.58 n-words per song has never been matched or even threatened. In 2007, T.I.’s T.I. vs. T.I.P. averaged 13.2 n-words, which bolstered the year’s average to 7.32. Only in 2012-13 have we seen any indication that the decrease in the occurrence of the n-word is coming to an end. Three years is not enough to draw any conclusions, but if the current trend continues, we will see a rise in the use of the n-word in the coming years.
Since we’re on the topic of slurs, here is how the homophobic slur “f*g” shows up in our data.
Aside from the massive spike in the early 2000s, this is one of the more predictable graphs in our study. F*g is not a very popular word in the rapper vocabulary, averaging less than .2 occurrences per song since 1985. Far and away, the most ruthless year in the homophobic category is 2000. This is the year the Eminem released his now classic album The Marshall Mathers LP. For those of you who can recall, this is the album that made headlines when the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation spoke out against its lyrical content. The album contained 14 instances of the word f*g or f*ggot, and is responsible for every mention the word received in that year of our study. The Marshall Mathers LP alone made 2000 the most lyrically homophobic year since 1985, and was BY FAR the most homophobic album in our study. 2001 comes in second on our list, but does not feature any Eminem albums, instead it consists of heavy-hitters like Jay-Z (1 occurrence), Nas (3 occurrences), Tupac (5 occurrences) and Ludacris (2 occurrences). Did Eminem’s shameless effort in 2000 influence these rappers to use the word more than usual?
The year with the third-highest rate of occurrence for the word was 2013, which may be cause for concern for those opposed to the use of the word. Unlike the spike in 2000 and 2001, last year’s rate appears to fall in line with the overall increasing trend that has taken place over the years. Homophobic slurs in rap are on the rise. With lyrically intense underground artists popping up and proving they can be successful in the mainstream, there is no reason to believe this trend will change.
Let’s move onward to one of the oldest rap topics in the book: degrading women.
Too $hort set the bar very high (or is it very low…) for rapping negatively about women on his 1985 album Raw, Uncut and X-Rated. Classics like “She’s a B*tch,” “The B*tch Sucks D*ck” and “Invasion of the Flat Booty B*tch,” paved the way for rappers to say anything and everything they thought about women. In all seriousness, no album in the history of rap has ever been as thoroughly derogatory towards women as the 1985 Too $hort album, whichaveraged 26.4 instances of misogynistic profanity per song.
The sharp decline after 1985 is countered by a steady increase until a spike in the late ’90s and early ’00s. This particularly misogynistic era was led by Dr. Dre, Tupac, Jay-Z, and the closest thing we have to a modern day Too $hort, Ludacris. Luda stakes claim to three of the top ten most misogynistic songs in our entire study (including the #1 song, “Ho”). “Ho“, which features 106 uses of the word ho, was included on the 2000 album Back For the First Time. To date, “Ho” has more than 2.4 million views on the Ludacris YouTube channel. Since 2001, the peak year, use of woman-degrading terms dropped back to normal levels. Since then, use of sexist terms has been erratic, but generally increasing.
I hope you enjoyed my take on this Best Tickets data. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below! Also, major props to Brett Cohen and Mykel Kovar for helping with the data collection and content development for this project. The team put in a lot of hours and we hope you enjoyed the results. Leave us your thoughts in the comments.
Remember, you can download this data using the links below: