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News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students


What's in a song?

The most frequently occurring lyrics in popular hip-hop and R&B songs can be arranged to read, well, essentially what they…

By Jessica Michielin , in A Scribe Out West , on March 14, 2010 Tags: , , , ,

The most frequently occurring lyrics in popular hip-hop and R&B songs can be arranged to read, well, essentially what they already said.

Let me explain. We’re discussing data visualization in class, and I thought it’d be interesting – and a learning exercise! – to analyze the lyrics of Billboard’s top ten hip-hop/R&B songs for the week of March 20.

I searched for the lyrics of all the songs using websites like eLyrics.net and SongLyrics.com and compiled them in a text document. I then used my mass of composite to generate a word cloud on Wordle.

And voila!

Aah hey! Gonna make love. Like, want baby? Nobody know!

Frequency is represented by prominence, with the most common word appearing the largest. In my experiment, the most popular word is “Aah.”

With little imagination I rearranged the top 10 words to read the following: “Aah hey! Gonna make love. Like, want baby? Nobody know!”

Riveting results? No, not particularly. Surprising sentence? Given the names of the songs analyzed (Sex Therapy, Say Aah and How Low, for example), I would again say no.

My experiment did, however, make me question what exactly makes these songs so popular. Do the themes of love, sex and relationships especially resonate with listeners or do these songs play without much thought given to their meanings?

I pay close attention to the actual words of the music I listen to, reaching beyond a catchy beat or chorus. In fact, some of my favourite artists are better suited to the title lyricist than rapper. Qwel and Brother Ali are two examples that immediately come to mind.

Music can be a powerful mechanism to spread a message. Take, for instance, Matisyahu, a Hasidic Jewish artist. Blending elements of hip-hop, reggae and rock, Matisyahu’s music is inspired by his religion, and this is represented in his lyrics. I haven’t done the analysis, but I think it’s safe to assume that the most common words in his songs cannot be arranged to form a sentence about making a secret baby.

My experiment was admittedly simple, and following the same steps in a few weeks when the Billboard charts have presumably changed will undoubtedly yield different result. But the point of the exercise was to step back and ask, “What exactly am I listening to?”

We’re taught to read news with a critical eye, but what about music? Simple: listen with a critical ear.

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