This past Monday, Seatsmart.com published a study conducted by (white) data analyst Andrew Powell-Morse entitled Lyric Intelligence In Popular Music: A Ten Year Analysis.
Powell-Morse ran the lyrics of 225 songs that spent at least 3 weeks at #1 on the Billboard’s charts in the past 10 years through Readability Score to obtain an average US reading level.
Out of the four included genres (country, rock, pop, R&B/hip-hop), hip-hop scored the lowest, with an average U.S. reading level of 2.6. According to the study, Eminem’s lyrics are the most advanced, followed by Nicki Minaj and Macklemore, who both also scored within the third grade reading level measure.
Readability Score measures reading level using the Flesch Reading Ease test, which calculates reading ease using words per sentence and syllables per word.
Merriam-Webster defines intelligence as “the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations : reason; also : the skilled use of reason (2) : the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (as tests)”
Though it’s certainly easy to read, I’m still trying to figure out how the ability to write a lyric about a boy toy named Troy who used to live in Detroit and who apparently knew how to please his women (as long as they were well-endowed) proves the ability to learn or understand anything other than how to make a song about butts that millions of people pay to hear (which sounds a lot like “applying knowledge to manipulate one’s environment” to me) — and I really hope to God third grade students aren’t writing anything similar to that — but Seatsmart and others quickly drew the conclusion that reading level equals intelligence as indicated by the title of the study. Seatsmart even refers to the artists with the lowest scores as “the dumbest”.
It’s no surprise that hip-hop ranked the lowest, and it’s no surprise that 2 white artists round out the top 3 scores in hip-hop. As we know, hip-hop is generally associated with Black people and Black culture. Black people, and, more specifically, Black students have been held to white supremacist intelligence standards for as long as these measures have existed, and results based on these measures have been used to explicitly and implicitly suggest that Black culture is inferior for just as long.
These standards have real world consequences, like an over-reliance on racially biased testing that leads to a devastating achievement gap. As the National Center for Fair & Open Testing explains, “testing leads to standardized instruction that ignores individual differences, needs and cultural variation, such as ‘scripting curriculum’.” Standardized tests in school, for instance, have consistently favored “One size fits few, and that one size takes as its norm white, middle to upper class experiences and cultural practices.”
Seatsmart’s study is trivial, but its implications are serious. Black writing, speech and thought have consistently been held to racially biased standards that lead to the still widespread belief among white people that Black people are lazier and stupider.
A song is not a book. A rap song is definitely not a book. It should not be read like a book, and if Drake started spitting lines from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, I’d find myself a new favorite light-skinned emo-singer/rapper/Degrassi alum in a quick second. I would expect most people who listen to rap, smart or stupid, to do the same.
And a Black child is not necessarily going to know the same things as her white counterparts, but that doesn’t mean what she knows is any less valuable.
Conflating smartness with meeting criteria that do not define intelligence is an effective tool of white supremacy, but based on its definition, it should be clear that intelligence can be expressed in a variety of ways. It can be simple. It can be complex. It can be hood. It can be Wall Street (which means it is probably also criminal). But it is not what Seatsmart – or College Board – says it is.
Also, I can’t believe I just defended the sophistication of modern mainstream rap. May the ghost of Tupac forgive me.