Word Wars: Shakespeare, Hip Hop, and the Common Core

Aesop RockEvery Wednesday morning, I visit a class of very smart, insightful, and surprisingly alert (considering class starts at 7:30 am) 11th graders during their English class. This week, they were finishing up their analyses of Hamlet soliloquies, and I took this opportunity to ask a few lingering questions about Shakespeare and Hip Hop (see previous post). What are some reasonable points of comparison?

Almost immediately, vocabulary began to emerge as the common ground.

One music fan pointed out that, like Shakespeare, the Hip Hop artist Aesop Rock commands a gigantic vocabulary, a fact documented last spring when this Shakespeare/Hip Hop infographic came out in an article by Matt Daniels (“designer, coder, and data scientist”) entitled, “The Largest Vocabulary in Hip Hop.” Daniels conveniently located Shakespeare’s relative spot in the lineup:


All the way to the right, sits Aesop Rock. And just to the left of him, members of Wu-Tang Clan and the Roots. These guys far surpass Shakespeare, and fans know it. Daniels writes that he originally excluded Aesop Rock (he seemed too obscure), but Reddit Hip Hop fans were insistent he be included. They knew he would shine in this comparison. So, Daniels ran the numbers and found they were right.

Voluminous Internet feedback followed the posting of Daniels’ article. As soon as Daniels’ chart came out, people began using it as a way to compare the quality of Hip Hop artists. Commenters suggested that it would follow that since Drake and JayZ are far to the left, they are obviously inferior artists to Aesop Rock or Wu-Tang. True?

Not really. Daniels quickly argued against this interpretation. First, he pointed out, vocabulary and verbal artistry are not the same. In a follow-up article, Daniels drew on a response to his first version, by Robert Gonzalez, to support his point of view. Gonzalez wrote that “On The Black Album track ‘Moment of Clarity,’ Jay-Z contrasts his lyricism with that of Common and Talib Kweli (both of whom “rank” higher than him, when it comes to the diversity of their vocabulary).” Then, Gonzalez cited these lines from Jay-Z:

Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense

But I did 5 mil – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since

Jay-Z is claiming to step down in terms of lyricism and vocabulary, gloating over his millions, but relinquishing any real claims to artistry to the hip hop artist Common. But is he really letting go of those claims to verbal art? He cleverly plays with the name “Common” and the phrase “Common sense” and in the process he implies that, in addition to doing “5 mil,” he still has some verbal skills. This suggests there is more to Hip Hop artistry than simply knowing a lot of words.

Other responses to Daniels’ Hip Hop vocabulary post point out that an artist’s “vocabulary” includes expressive devices that extend beyond words. Nathan, on Pigeons and Planes, brings this point home, when he writes:

In hip hop, and music in general, words aren’t the only thing that makes up an artist’s vocabulary.

As I followed this chain of remarks about vocabulary and Hip Hop, from the 11th grader’s comment on Aesop Rock, to the Internet posting, to the comments on that, I noticed the marked insistence that vocabulary, alone, can’t account for someone’s artistry or the extent of their communicative resources.

Delving into language artistry—be it Hip Hop or Shakespeare or Rush (another musical group the 11th graders invoked)—seems to be a much more complicated matter than counting words. For any director adapting Shakespeare to a new stage or in a new context, choosing costumes, deciding on the pacing, delivery, voice, pitch, tone, accent, and gestures, all enter into decisions for how to make a play that communicates with its audience. These decisions seem to align with those of Hip Hop artists like Jay-Z, similarly making “Common” sense decisions about how to reach their listeners.

Recent debates about the Common Core State Standards and their requirements for “vocabulary acquisition and use” traverse the same theme. Some have been worried that the common core designates specific vocabulary to be learned, ranging from outrage that the common core designates left-wing vocabulary or overly specified “academic” vocabulary or even the teaching of “Islamic” vocabulary.

Upon closer (any) examination, the Common Core encourages reflection on vocabulary and nuances of meaning precisely along the lines of the Internet exchanges surrounding the use of Hip Hop vocabulary and its relative worth. For grades 11 and 12, standards for “vocabulary acquisition and use” include the following:

Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

Interpret figures of speech (e.g., hyperbole, paradox) in context and analyze their role in the text.

Analyze nuances in the meaning of words with similar denotations.

These standards do not focus on accumulating huge quantities of vocabulary words in isolation or determining the specific words that should be learned. Instead, these standards direct teachers and students to relish the “nuances” of word meanings, to understand that nuance “in context” and to make fine distinctions between words of similar meanings. Addressing these standards might even bridge the sophisticated types of debate that surround postings about Hip Hop and other music lyrics, and the kind of talk English teachers hope to encourage around literature like Shakespeare.

What do you view as a sophisticated use of vocabulary? How do you define “vocabulary”? Is it only words? How do you judge the relative merit of different verbal artistry? Please comment!

Shakespeare or Hip Hop?

wutang  Shakespeare

Last week in an 11th Grade English class, the English teacher and I started a discussion of language in Hamlet by presenting this poetic musing from D.H. Lawrence:

When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder

That such trivial people should muse and thunder

In such lovely language.     

Then we asked students about their experiences reading Shakespeare’s language so far. They shared frustrations (Too repetitive! Confusing word order!) and doubts (No way could one man have written so much!). Nobody fully embraced the idea that Shakespeare was a creative genius.

Nor did anyone take issue with Lawrence’s glib use of the phrase “trivial people” or the condescending tone he took toward them. Why shouldn’t everyone muse and thunder in lovely language?

Then, we trotted out this Shakespeare versus Hip Hop quiz (one I also shared with my Facebook friends, thus the 79 responses).

The questions and answers (quiz adapted from Ammon Shea’s book Bad English (2014)):

Quote Answer % Correct (n=79)
1.   The music, ho! 1.     Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra 78%
2.   But if you don’t, I’ll unsheathe my Excalibur, like a noble knight 2.     Gangstarr, “Step in the Arena” 66%
3.   Holla, holla! 3.     Shakespeare, King Lear 62%
4.   This is the proper way man should use ink. 4.     Big Daddy Kane, “Taste of Chocolate” 45%
5.   Welcome, ass, Now let’s have a catch. 5.     Shakespeare, Twelfth Night 68%
6.   The money that you owe me for the chain. 6.     Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors 48%
7.   Pay me back when you shake it again. 7.     Nas, “You Own Me” 67%
8.   Holla, ho! Curtis! 8.     Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew 60%
9.   Sabotaged, shellshocked, rocked and ruled, Day in the life of a fool. 9.     Public Enemy, “Brothers Gonna Work it Out” 70%
10.          Every square inch of it, that he chose for himself, is the best part. 10. Wu-Tang Clan, “Wu-Revolution.” 37%

People seem to get the right answer an average of about 60% of the time. Just barely a collective D-.

As some astute 11th graders pointed out, they were able to choose the “right” answers by second-guessing the test, not by deciding whether the language represented the “essence” of Hip Hop or Shakespeare.

Number 1 (78% correct!), for example, seemed to point to Shakespeare only because it sounds obviously like Hip Hop. Typical test-designers, students speculated, would include “ho” just to trick people.

Number 9 (70% correct) includes the word “shellshocked,” which another student pointed to as a giveaway, since that word didn’t exist until after the First World War. Shakespeare didn’t have any shells of that kind!

So, unless you know the exact lyric or play, or recognize testing tricks or oversights, the average person seems to have about a 50/50 chance of correctly guessing whether these quotes come from “Shakespeare” or “Hip Hop.” What does this tell us? Perhaps Shakespeare’s forte was not in his isolated mastery of “The English Language.” Instead, he may have been capturing exactly what “trivial people” said. Their wondrous language (including “ho” and “holla holla”), gleaned from Shakespeare’s active life in the pubs (so we’ve heard), may be precisely what Shakespeare wrote down.

What does that tell us about literary language? About Hip Hop? About our collective language resources? Do you know some “trivial people” that “muse and thunder” in lovely language? How do today’s artists—musicians, screen-writers, poets, playwrights—take up the talk of everyday people and use it for effect?   Please comment!