Do I Like Rap?
Jul 27, 2019 • matt • ~ 25 minute read • 4514 words
About half a year ago, I started logging my favourite song of the week. It’s a habit that I’ve stuck to throughout the year, and it’s one that I’ve enjoyed so far - asking myself what my favourite song was of each week tends to lead into a rabbit hole of reflection, and isn’t an easy question to answer.
There’s a lot more potential for what I can do with this data - especially if I linked it with Spotify or last.fm’s APIs - but I’ve already come to one interesting realization: I’m not sure if I like rap as much as I thought. Let’s explore.
songs of the week
Out of the 30 weeks that I’ve done so far, my favourite song of the week has been a rap song only 7 times; they are:
- 5% TINT by Travis Scott (Week 7: Feb 8 - Feb 14)
- Gimme The Loot by The Notorious B.I.G (Week 8: Feb 15 - Feb 21)
- Hookers by Tierra Whack (Week 16: Apr 12 - Apr 18)
- Boyer by Kevin Abstract (Week 18: Apr 26 - May 2)
- EARFQUAKE by Tyler, the Creator (Week 22: May 24 - May 30)
- Cocoa Butter Kisses by Chance the Rapper (Week 27: June 28 - July 4)
- Selfish by Little Simz (Week 28: July 5 - July 11)
For someone who claims that their favourite genre of music is rap, this is a pretty surprising statistic. Most of my songs of the week have been some amalgamation of alt rock and indie pop - genres very distant from trap or hip-hop.
The artist spread is also surprising, especially when you look at this in conjunction with last.fm statistics. Usually, if people would ask me who my top ten rappers are, it’d look something like this:
- Kendrick Lamar
- Kanye West
- 21 Savage
- Vince Staples
- Chance the Rapper
- J. Cole
- Travis Scott
Only two songs show up on my songs of the week list: Boyer by Kevin Abstract (member of BROCKHAMPTON) and Cocoa Butter Kisses by Chance the Rapper (there’s a sneaky third in Forever Always, but I’ll discount that for now). In hindsight, I’m not a huge fan of Boyer any more (Peach is probably my favourite song off of that album), and Cocoa Butter Kisses was more of a nostalgia pick because Acid Rap just got on Spotify. In other words, it looks like my favourite rappers aren’t even really my favourites - I wouldn’t put Biggie, Tierra Whack, or Little Simz in my top ten, but they show up much more than Kendrick does.
In comparison, Carly Rae Jepsen and Tessa Violet both show up twice on my list - and if I started doing the list just a bit earlier, mxmtoon and Rex Orange County would both show up either twice or three times. Do I like Tessa Violet more than Kendrick, BROCKHAMPTON, Kanye, Logic, and 21 combined? Probably not. But at the very least, her songs have defined my weeks much more than any of those rappers have - or at least, according to this list.
That leads me to an interesting conclusion: it might just be that I listen to rap a lot more, but the standout tracks of every week tend to be poppier - and tend to drop out of popularity after a week or two. Poppier songs usually have catchier hooks and refrains, so some part of me is willing to buy this. But at the same time, rap songs are catchy too: punchy one-liners and snappy beats are the bread and butter of any popular rap song, and mainstream rap tends to incorporate poppy hooks (think most of Kanye) or use trap refrains (think Bad and Boujee) that are absolute earworms.
I’m also willing to chalk it up to two other possible reasons: one, that I have favourite rap songs but they don’t enter my rotation often, or two, that the new rap now sucks and I don’t like listening to it. I’m not particularly convinced by either of those arguments, but they could have some weight.
Obviously, there’s both a lack of data and a bit of cherry-picking here, but it’s an interesting point to consider. So far, I’m still willing to stand by my opinion that Kendrick and BROCKHAMPTON are my #1 and #2 respectively. But this next part gives me another run for my money.
last.fm - tracks
Things get spicier when you look at my last.fm metrics, which tracks all of the songs I’ve listened to since November 2nd, 2018 (when I started using last.fm). First, let’s take a peep at my top ten tracks (as of today), another way to look at my hypothetical favourite songs.
- Loving Is Easy by Rex Orange County (74 plays),
- girls by girl in red (72 plays)
- cliché by mxmtoon (63 plays)
- Sunflower by Rex Orange County (58 plays)
- Crush by Tessa Violet (56 plays)
- Bound 2 by Kanye West (54 plays)
- I Feel It Coming by The Weeknd
- Falling for U by Peachy! ft. mxmtoon (50 plays)
- I’m Awkward and Shy by nvthvn ft. tiffi (49 plays)
- three way tie: thank u, next by Ariana Grande, Pristine by Snail Mail, Sun by Two Door Cinema Club (48 plays)
Out of these twelve, only one is a rap song (Bound 2 by Kanye). In comparison, mxmtoon shows up twice (luv her), as does Rex.
However, this might just be a byproduct of what I talked about earlier with pop songs being standout. Let’s look at the distribution of the top 50, which should be more consistent with my listening trends.
I’ll split them up by artist appearance - I don’t think the actual track is particularly significant, unless it’s a strong deviation from that artist’s normal style.
- Rex Orange County: 206 plays (Loving is Easy, Sunflower, Best Friend, Television / So Far So Good)
- mxmtoon: 199 plays (cliché, Falling for U, feelings are fatal, i feel like chet)
- 21 Savage: 122 plays (a lot, 10 Freaky Girls, Mad High)
- girl in red: 106 plays (girls, i wanna be your girlfriend)
- Tessa Violet: 96 plays (Crush, I Like (the idea of) You)
- Kanye West: 87 plays (Bound 2, All Falls Down)
- Glass Animals: 76 plays (Season 2 Episode 3, Agnes)
- Hippo Campus: 73 plays (Way It Goes, South)
- Logic: 66 plays (Like Woah, Run It)
- The Weeknd: 51 plays (I Feel It Coming)
- nvthn/tiffi: 49 plays (I’m Awkward and Shy)
- Ariana Grande: 48 plays (thank u, next)
- Snail Mail: 48 plays (Pristine)
- Two Door Cinema Club: 48 plays (Sun)
- Drake: 47 plays (Nice For What)
- TV Girl: 45 plays (Lovers Rock)
- SALES: 44 plays (Chinese New Year)
- The 1975: 41 plays (It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You))
- The Greeting Committee: 41 plays (Hands Down)
- Peach Face: 40 plays (Grilled Cheese)
- Toploader/King Harvest: 39 plays (Dancing in The Moonlight)
- OK Go: 38 plays (Needing/Getting)
- Post Malone/Swae Lee: 38 plays (Sunflower) - I wouldn’t count this as rap
- Sorcha Richardson: 38 plays (Ruin Your Night)
- Avid Dancer: 36 plays (You Only Like Me With The Lights Out)
- Superorganism: 36 plays (Everybody Wants to Be Famous)
- Kacey Musgraves: 35 plays (Butterflies)
- Playboi Carti: 34 plays (Magnolia)
- Saweetie: 34 plays (Pissed)
- Arctic Monkeys: 33 plays (Four Out of Five)
- Joji: 33 plays (CAN’T GET OVER YOU) - debatably rap, but I think this is more R&B/pop
- 88GLAM: 32 plays (Bali)
- BROCKHAMPTON: 32 plays (TOKYO)
- Crumb: 32 plays (Locket)
- Lorde/Disclosure: 32 plays (Magnets)
- San Cisco: 32 plays (Wash It All Away)
So, we have 8 rappers (I’ll discount Swae Lee in Sunflower since I’d say that’s more singing/R&B) with a total of 12 songs in the top 50. That’s actually quite consistent with the songs of the week statistic (12/50 = 24%, 7/30 = 23%). And, similar to my songs of the week, the selected artists don’t line up one-to-one with my favourite rappers: 21, Kanye, Logic, and BROCKHAMPTON all make their appearances, but Playboi Carti, 88GLAM, and Saweetie are nowhere near being my favourite rappers, let alone artists.
In addition, if you sum all the rap songs in the top 59, you’ll get 492 plays. Adding up just mxmtoon, Rex, and girl in red gives you 560 plays. Even if you’re generous and you include CAN’T GET OVER YOU and Sunflower as rap songs, you get just on par (561 plays) with this dominant bedroom pop trio.
What does this mean? It mostly invalidates the “i hate new rap” theory: Bali, Magnolia, and all of 21 Savage’s discography are part of the new wave of mumble rap/trap, and 7 of the 12 songs came out from 2017 onward (a lot, 10 Freaky Girls, Nice for What, Magnolia, Pissed, Bali, TOKYO).
It’s inconclusive if my all-time favourites are or aren’t part of my daily rotation - Kendrick doesn’t show up at all, nor anything from my favourite Logic album (Under Pressure), and the BROCKHAMPTON pickings are scarce (SWEET is by far my favourite BH song). But, Bound 2 & All Falls Down do rank as some of my favourite Kanye songs, and Bali, Magnolia, and Nice For What are my favourite songs by each of those respective artists (and rank in my favourite songs of all time).
It does look like “poppier” music tends to stick more: pop and indie/alt rock dominate the top 50, and most of the rap songs that do make the list are either poppier (Nice for What, Bound 2, TOKYO) or trap-catchy (Magnolia, Bali, a lot, 10 Freaky Girls). It’s also a convenient explanation as to why Kendrick doesn’t show up at all (I wouldn’t call Alright, m.A.A.d city, or Sing of Me to be particularly poppy songs).
I’m no data scientist, but I think we still need more data. How can we filter away catchy one-hit-wonders (like Bali by 88GLAM) and look at the staying power of my music?
last.fm - artists
The next natural data is to look at my top artists (as measured by plays of their music). In some ways, this is better than tracks, and in some ways, it’s worse. On one hand, it’s not wholly representative of quality of output - I’ve listened to lots of songs by the Migos or 88GLAM, but not because I strongly like them: they just release a lot of songs, and some of them are in my gym playlist. On the other hand, they might give a clearer picture of the genres that I listen to the most, and measure artistic consistency - are there artists that I just put on play for an hour?
Again, let’s take a look at last.fm:
- Logic (556 plays)
- 21 Savage (402 plays) - last.fm credits 21 as the artist for Without Warning and Savage Mode
- BROCKHAMPTON (379 plays)
- mxmtoon (377 plays)
- Rex Orange County (339 plays)
- The Weeknd (316 plays)
- Kanye West (314 plays)
- Kendrick Lamar (224 plays)
- Glass Animals (215 plays)
- Carly Rae Jepsen (212 plays)
- Chance the Rapper (206 plays)
- The 1975 (204 plays)
- girl in red (198 plays)
- Drake (191 plays)
- Ariana Grande (173 plays)
- Tyler, the Creator (172 plays)
- Hippo Campus (162 plays)
- Two Door Cinema Club (158 plays)
- Vince Staples (153 plays)
- Lorde (152 plays)
- Billie Eilish (150 plays)
- Paramore (147 plays)
- TV Girl (135 plays)
- Kacey Musgraves (126 plays)
- Travis Scott (126 plays)
- The Head and the Heart (121 plays)
- Metro Boomin (119 plays) - not double-counting, Metro is only credited for NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES
- Noname (119 plays)
- Big Sean (116 plays)
- Tierra Whack (115 plays)
- Cage the Elephant (114 plays)
- Tessa Violet (105 plays)
- 88GLAM (103 plays)
- Crumb (97 plays)
- Saweetie (92 plays)
- J. Cole (87 plays)
- Royal Blood (85 plays)
- The Greeting Committee (84 plays)
- Vampire Weekend (81 plays)
- Anderson .Paak (80 plays)
- Conan Gray (80 plays)
- Mac Miller (80 plays)
- Arctic Monkeys (79 plays)
- KYLE (79 plays)
- Aminé (75 plays)
- OK Go (75 plays)
- Bruno Mars (73 plays)
- Khalid (72 plays)
- MGMT (71 plays)
- Panic! at the Disco (71 plays)
Out of our 50 artists, 19 of them are rappers (not counting Metro Boomin’). They comprise 3827 of the 8179 plays in the top 50, giving an inclusion rate of ~ 47%. That’s swings more towards rap than either songs of the week or the pure tracks analysis; and, in terms of genre, this means that rap is the genre I listen to the most (a minority majority, if you will).
What explains this difference? I think the most telling picture is the top 15 artists. Other than girl in red (who has no long albums or EPs) and Drake (who I don’t think makes good albums), the rest of these artists have albums that are consistently in my rotation. You can especially see this in the dominance of the top 7 (Logic, 21, BH, mxmtoon, Rex, the Weeknd, and Kanye) - artists whose albums I play in the background when I’m doing work or walking somewhere.
We’ll verify my album hypothesis in a moment, but there are a few other interesting things to talk about. First, Logic. For a long time, Logic was my favourite artist (and rapper), and I still really enjoy his earlier work (Under Pressure and The Incredible True Story are definitely somewhere in my top 10/15 albums). Recently, I’ve been disappointed with his output: Supermarket, Bobby Tarantino II, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind were absolute letdowns, and YSIV & Everybody have both been underwhelming. However, it still makes sense that he absolutely dominates my listened-to artists: he releases a lot of music (I’ll always listen through a new Logic album at least once), and UP/TITS are always on repeat for me.
There are a few other artists that have interesting statistics. 21 is popular mostly because he’s a big part of my gym playlist (on top of the fact that I enjoy his music). Surprisingly, Kendrick isn’t in that 300+ stretch. It’s probably because I can’t just listen to TPAB/GKMC absentmindedly - I feel like I have to sit down and devote my attention to them to fully enjoy Kendrick’s work. That’s not necessarily a good or bad thing, but that means that I’m not listening to Mortal Man while I’m cooking or Sing of Me, I’m Dying of Thirst on a run.
Also, I just want to point out the special case of Tessa Violet: 90% of her listens are just off of Crush and I Like (the idea of) You. I don’t have much depth into her as an artist, but I just really love those two songs - and maybe that skews away from rap in these statistics, but doesn’t change my overall feeling towards either rap or pop.
The last thing I want to point out is some sort of recency bias. I do actually maintain a playlist of my favourite songs of all time, limited to one song per album, and I put in a non-trivial amount of time thinking about what songs to put on there. That playlist barely matches up one-to-one with the top 50 songs on last.fm, and the distinct artists that I have there also differ significantly from the last.fm ratings. Some of this has to do with a difference in my all-time faves versus the songs I listen to the most consistently now. I was a much bigger fan of Eminem, Classified, Bruno Mars, old Paramore, and Panic! a few years ago than I am now, and that reflects itself in how I’ve maintained smash mouth versus my last.fm listens. It’s kind of a shame that Spotify doesn’t archive all of your listening data (or at least doesn’t make it accessible in their API), because I truly think that it’d be an amazing treasure trove to look through.
Anyways, onto albums.
last.fm - albums
You know the drill.
- Under Pressure - Logic (191)
- The Incredible True Story - Logic (177)
- How To Be A Human Being - Glass Animals (168)
- A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships - The 1975 (167)
- Apricot Princess - Rex Orange County (164)
- Igor - Tyler, the Creator (135)
- Without Warning - 21 Savage, Offset, Metro Boomin’ (134)
- Starboy - The Weeknd (134)
- plum blossom - mxmtoon (131) - this is a short EP
- Dedicated - Carly Rae Jepsen (128)
- SATURATION II - BROCKHAMPTON (127)
- Golden Hour - Kacey Musgraves (126)
- Savage Mode - 21 Savage, Metro Boomin’ (118)
- i am > i was - 21 Savage (110)
- Beauty Behind the Madness - The Weeknd (108)
- thank u, next - Ariana Grande (107)
- Pure Heroine - Lorde (98)
- The Head and The Heart - The Head and the Heart (98)
- Landmark - Hippo Campus (97)
- Whack World - Tierra Whack (97)
- To Pimp a Butterfly - Kendrick Lamar (91)
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse - Various Artists (87) - this did have Sunflower, which I didn’t count as a rap song
- The College Dropout - Kanye West (84)
- SATURATION - BROCKHAMPTON (79)
- NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES - Metro Boomin’ (79)
- Graduation - Kanye West (78)
- chapter 1 - girl in red (76) - this is a short EP
- Loving Is Easy - Rex Orange County (74) - this is a single
- WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? - Billie Eilish (71)
- FM! - Vince Staples (70)
- dont smile at me - Billie Eilish (69)
- Birds In The Trap Sing McKnight - Travis Scott (69)
- Telefone - Noname (68)
- Royal Blood - Royal Blood (68)
- Lush - Snail Mail (68)
- ARIZONA baby - Kevin Abstract (66)
- ASTROWORLD - Travis Scott (65)
- French Exit - TV Girl (65)
- MILKY WAY - Bas (64)
- SATURATION III - BROCKHAMPTON (61)
- After Laughter - Paramore (61)
- Scorpion - Drake (58) - technically a 50/50 R&B/rap album according to Drake
- we fell in love in october / forget her - girl in red (58) - this is a double play
- Yeezus - Kanye West (58)
- Sunflower - Rex Orange County - this is a single
- Is This It - The Strokes
- iridescence - BROCKHAMPTON (57)
- Paramore - Paramore (56)
- Crush - Tessa Violet (56) - this is a single
- 88GLAM RELOADED - 88GLAM (55)
Wow, so exactly 25 out of the top 50 are rap albums (barring the few singles and LPs that scatter the list). I think there are a few conclusions that I can draw from this data.
First, when I listen to albums, it’s mostly rap (and tbh, it’s probably Logic). Anecdotally, this is true - I am much more likely to play a rap album from start to finish than, let’s say, Carly Rae Jepsen - but you can also see some statistical correlations. A significant portion of the albums have no song representing them in the Top 50 Tracks, the strongest examples being FM!, Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, SATURATION I & III, iridescence, IGOR, and Telefone, as their artists are in the Top 50 but their songs aren’t. In contrast, there’s a prevalence of singles and short EPs/LPs (I’m looking at you, girl in red) coming out of artists in my top 50.
Secondly, there’s a lot less disparity between the top 25/50 in albums than tracks/artists (or in other words, the gap between #1 and #10 is not as large). This is probably because I’m just generally not a habitual album listener - I do most of my music listening with mood/themed playlists - but I also think this is because albums have less of that earworm effect than single songs do. Other than when albums come out, I don’t often have a single album on repeat (again, with Logic & TPAB being the exception), which means that rap albums won’t be as dominant as, let’s say, Tessa Violet.
This gives some credence to the “poppy” argument that I gave earlier, though it still poses the question of cause and effect. Is it that rap is not that poppy, and so the rap that I listen to is mostly listened to in album form - or is it that I tend to listen to rap in albums, but don’t with pop/indie rock, leading to this song disparity? Or, is it both - and what effect does that have on whether or not I actually like rap?
Something else I also want to point out is the placement of To Pimp A Butterfly. I’m adamant that this is my favourite album of all time, and Kendrick is my favourite rapper (and probably artist) - but it doesn’t rack where it should be. Again, I’ll chalk this up to the inability to truly casually listen to the album, front to back - but that’s also a sub-par excuse. This does bring up something that’s a flaw in this overall metric: each play of a song doesn’t have equal value in appreciation. As much as I love Bali by 88GLAM or bad guy by Billie Eilish, I don’t think they hold the same value as one listen of Alright, The Blacker The Berry, or u. And at the end of the day, that’s fine, but it makes it very difficult to quantify music enjoyment (like the way I’m doing right now).
As I said before, some of this is tinged with recency bias - if I had used last.fm for several years, TPAB would rank higher in listens than it does now, and recent albums like IGOR or A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships wouldn’t fare as well. This effect is the most obvious with some of the rap that I listen to in the gym (like NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES), but also with some pop and alt rock that has been very seasonal for me (like Hippo Campus or The 1975) - these aren’t albums that I imagine will hold much longevity for me.
This was quite a roundabout way to come up with … a mediocre conclusion. To be fair, that’s like half of this blog. However, I do want to consolidate a few takeaways that I’ve gleamed from this process (where I basically just sat on my computer and typed for like 6 hours).
Firstly, I’ll broadly say that I probably do like rap less. Regardless of the pop effect that I’ve talked about earlier, the stats don’t lie - I do just listen to rap less, and that’s a fact. Bedroom pop, alt rock, indie rock, and mild electro just take up more of my listening time now.
But also, something that I haven’t really talked about yet is that I dislike more and more new rap releases. I might just be outgrowing rap.
When I was younger, I really loved rap because of fast flows and flashy punchlines (think Eminem, Watsky, Logic, early Gambino, Big Sean), and that’s what started my rap obsession. In high school, I moved more towards heavy lyrical content (e.g. Kendrick, old Kanye, older Logic, Acid Rap Chance, J. Cole, Atmosphere, Vince, Isaiah Rashad, etc.) and energetic, thematic production (21 x Metro collabs, BROCKHAMPTON, Travis, new Kanye, Magnolia, etc.). Now, I can’t point exactly to the thing that makes me love rap the most. If I was pressed, I’d still say narrative storytelling (à la TPAB) and innovative production (à la BROCKHAMPTON), but I find less and less of that with new releases.
Part of it just might be that rap is getting worse, at least in my eyes. I like some of mumble rap/new wave, but not all of it: for example, the XXL Freshmen Class are definitely getting worse and worse (Lil Mosey, wtf man). I do think music streaming has some part to play in all of this, especially if you look at the longer, more bloated albums that rap superstars have been releasing (Migos, Drake, Future, and Logic all come to mind). It’s just plain tiring to sit down and listen to an hour and a half of mediocre rap. I want more albums like Kanye’s surgical summer, even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of KSG or ye. I want more albums that are polished and meticulously crafted. And if they aren’t, to at least have some raw energy to them, to have something new that lights a fire under my ass. Right now, I just don’t think that rap is giving that to me.
There are some other factors too. I just enjoy chill music more now. There are tons of reasons about why I love Rex and mxmtoon, not the least because their music is calming and pleasant to listen to. It invokes a different set of emotions than TPAB or GMKC or UP, and I like it. It’s also compounded by the fact that not many of my friends at UCLA listen to rap - it’s hard to rave about ASTROWORLD if people I’m close to just don’t care.
Secondly, I’m invested in slightly changing how I listen to music. I think I’m too much of a playlist listener - I tend to not listen to albums front-to-back after I listen to them once or twice, and it draws away from some of the experience. Granted, this will likely lower the overall diversity of songs I listen to - an advantage of playlist listening is that I can easily mix and match genres - but I’m willing to take the trade-off to enjoy the music I listen to more.
Thirdly, I want to collect more data and spend more time interpreting it. I really do think that data science is a sexy field, and while this post isn’t even close to data science, the idea that drove it is a passion from drawing conclusions from data, and applying it to real life - even if it is something as trivial as what kind of music that I listen to.
As I delve more into math and computer science, I wonder how I can tackle this problem again in the future. As I mentioned, there are issues with this post’s methodology: the lack of data (which time will fix), and the equivocation of all plays being equal (which time won’t). Are there ways I can resolve the latter? Can I rigorously analyze what songs I listen to at what times (which I’d have to automate somehow), or apply NLP and look for common themes across the music I listen to? Can I use DSP to eek out similar styles of production across multiple genres, or use data mining/data science tools and find patterns that I hadn’t thought about before?
And finally, I miss talking in-depth about music with people. At UCLA, I haven’t spent much time doing that. Most art is grounded in context, in its environment - especially narrative art, something that most rap strives to be. Exploring those narratives, like I once did to figure out who the butterfly was and why it was significant, is one of the most satisfying ways to appreciate art.
But that’s a future me problem. For now, I might just listen to TPAB again.
Until next time!