Music Business

Rap vs Rock: Which References Drugs, Alcohol Most?

3While music has changed a great deal over time, it has consistently referenced drug and alcohol usage for decades. But which genre does so the most? Here we look at a lyrical analysis of artists and genres to determine where substances feature the most frequently.


Guest post by Rebecca Agocs

You might expect the outcome of the question to be pretty straightforward, but the lines aren’t so clear cut when you look at the lyrics of popular songs.  

Popular music changes over time. From the vocabulary used in the song lyrics to the trendy beats backing pop songs, music of the 2010’s is not the same as music of the 1960s. Popular musicians and hit songs are known for their relatability, typically, to the time they were either written or recorded.

The Billboard Top 100 songs are a good representation of what was popular and trending that year. Fan preferences dictate which songs end up on the Top 100 lists for different genres so that’s a good basis for averages – like the average number of times rappers mention some kind of substance in their Billboard Top 100 Rap hits over the last few years. 

To be honest, music has referenced drugs and alcohol (their use and abuse) for decades. The 1930s, around the time of prohibition, was the first spike in references made in music to drugs or alcohol. Societal and cultural issues spike references made to substances in music too – for example, the Vietnam War. But at this point, about one third of hit songs include explicit mentions of drugs in some form.  

It isn’t news to anyone that popular music lyrics reference substances a lot of late. With a majority of hits having some kind of reference to either a straightforward substance or something disguised with slang, more songs do reference drugs and alcohol rather than do not. Lyrics are analyzed and studied all the time so people can glean insights about what’s going on in the world. With that said, you can hardly turn on the radio without a song referencing content suitable for a parental advisory, regardless of the station you’re tuning in to.

We never knew which music genre made the most references until now.  

By looking at the prevalence of mentions of substances in Billboard’s Top 100 Rap and Rock songs from the last 6 years (2012-2018), Laguna Treatment, a recovery center in California, was able to determine which genre is portraying or referencing substances the most. 

The Study: An Analysis of Drugs and Alcohol in Hit Rap and Rock Songs 

In order to take a look at the number of drug and alcohol references, they counted every different substance or its nickname just once even if it was repeated multiple times in the lyrics. Over time, it’s clear that music has given artists a path to detail their struggles or experience with substance use. The prevalence of references – on average, 3 unique substances per song – shows a conversation trending towards the discussion of drug use. 2018 shows to be the year with the highest total number of unique drug or alcohol references in the most popular rap and rock songs. 


The data was pretty clear: rappers are mentioning drugs and alcohol more often than rock song writers. From 2012-2018, rappers started mentioning over 4 different drugs per song, on average. Rap is the clear winner in terms of which genre references substances the most. 


If you break the data down a bit further, the lines become blurry because different artists reference substances across the genres. Some rock artists mention them more than rappers; Twenty One Pilots and Imagine Dragons have the #2 and #3 slots for most references to substances overall. Kendrick Lamar takes the #1 place for most references to substances overall in the last 6 years, with 183 references total. 

The Songs Themselves

Rap lyrics have more unique references to different substances in each song on average than rock. On average, rap songs referenced 4.89 different substances in each song in 2018 (the year with the most references) While rock songs referenced over 1.48 unique references. In 2018, the artist with the most unique references to substances was Travis Scott with 16 unique references. 


Some artists are well known for their “party” anthems that portray drug use. Future, in particular, has a bunch of music that references drugs. One of his songs tops the chart of Top 100 Rap and Rock songs in 2014 for most references to different substances. In “Move That Doh”, Future and his cohorts mention 18 different drugs. 

The Artists Referencing Substances the Most 

Out of the songs that have the most unique references to drugs and alcohol, there are some artists who mention them more than others.

For instance, Drake has made 61 unique references to different substances in his songs on the Top 100 between 2012-2018. Kendrick Lamar isn’t far behind, and we already know he’s one to mention substances pretty frequently in his lyrics. 

Overall it’s clear rap is the winner. 9 out of 10 songs with the most overall references to substances are rap songs. Generally, rap dominated the categories in the number of references used in songs, whether that was the total number of references or unique references. 

So is it the music that’s changing or fan preferences? The next few years of song releases will tell. 

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