Former Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch has long displayed his fluency in rap music and hip hop culture in general, from his familiar shouts out to Lil Boosie in interviews, to the time he tried freestyling on a camel while in Egypt, or when Lynch disrupted an interview session by turning up his stereo loud in the Seahawks locker room with “R-rated lyrics” in the background rendering his coveted quotes unsuitable for TV or radio, or after Super Bowl XLVIII when he celebrated to Philthy Rich’s “Ready to Ride” postgame in all-red Beast Mode sweats, or when Lynch simultaneously referenced two different generations of his Northern California brethren Keak da Sneak and “Lil Tim” Mozzy while announcing his return to football with the Oakland Raiders in April.
Well a study of rap lyrics over time reveals that music has lately become fluent in Marshawn Lynch too. According to RapStats, a searchable content database run through the website Rap Genius, Lynch’s name has continued to receive more and more mentions in rap songs since it first started appearing in the corpus at the beginning of this decade.
Like Google’s Trends or its printed materials search Ngram, RapStats can be handy for comparing the popularity of terms in lyrics, including the names of public figures. If you are Forbes magazine, say, you can use it to show how much more often rappers talk about Bill Gates than Warren Buffett. As with the Google tools it’s an imperfect and sometimes limited method, but in 2017, depending on which search terms you associate with his name, Lynch’s is either the second-most dropped name among contemporary football players—or mentioned five times more frequently than the nearest challenger. Even during basically a year and a half away from the NFL in his temporary retirement, Marshawn’s profile in rap lyrics continued to rise.
Here you can see how Lynch does compared to other prominent Seattle players (all charts courtesy of Rap Genius):
The graph comes unfortunately situated with a lengthy gap of empty years before 2010 because you can’t adjust the time parameters of the search (which start at 1988, the earliest year in the RapStats data set), so all the lines plotted in this one look compressed against the right wall of the present. Yet you can still clearly see how rappers start to take notice of Lynch not long after his Beast Quake run that won the playoff game against the New Orleans Saints in January 2011, and his notability further rises as the Seahawks become a dominant team. Although Lynch starts off a little slower than Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman, after 2012 none of them come close to Lynch. Indeed among these players only Sherman and Wilson gather any mentions at all.
However, this chart isn’t even displaying Lynch’s full share of notoriety, partly because Marshawn unlike those other guys has a single name that’s both instantly identifiable and has syllables that rhyme easily and roll off the tongue, making it a much more rap-ready than any full name. Indeed, simplifying the query to just “Marshawn” brings about 30 percent more mentions at every data point. Among the rest of these players, only Kam Chancellor has a first or last name at all unique on its own—but phonetically Kam shares that name with the well-known rapper Cam’ron (aka Killa Cam) and even the early-’90s West Coast emcee called Kam uses the same spelling, not to mention it’s a syllable by itself that sounds indistinguishable among other football players like Cam Newton. “Chancellor”, too, already happens to be a noun in the language. Same with his nickname the “Enforcer”, so these aren’t helpful search strings to find references to the Seattle strong safety.
Even Chancellor’s other nickname, “Bam Bam”, belongs also to gourmand Queens rapper Action Bronson (there are no results for “Bam Bam Kam”). So does “Black Santa”, Michael Bennett’s jolly sobriquet, instead address in the rap world the Philly wordsmith Freeway and even sometimes Atlanta’s Gucci Mane. Likewise terms like “Optimus Prime”, “E.T.”, “DangeRuss”/”dangerous” are too broad to help us zero in on mentions of the other Seahawks, while more specific nicknames “Area 29”, “Angry Doug”/”ADB” or “RW3” aren’t rap-intelligible enough to signify anything to listeners unless maybe in a corny promotional song aimed directly at Seattle fans.
Lynch, however, gets handily recognized by his trademark and alter ego, Beast Mode. It’s the mentality that put Lynch so high on the recent list of NFL badasses, and makes his style so influential at all levels of football today:
Everybody tries to shake the defender in this dril. Meanwhile in Oakland, Ca....... pic.twitter.com/A2MKnZcOoK— Brandon Younger (@BrandonYounger) July 13, 2017
Within hip hop its connotation of ferocity and transcendence together with Lynch’s personification of a charming-insular vibe—he might put his arm around you or smack your phone—makes the Beast Mode identity a fit avatar for nearly any rapper’s verbal tool chest. Wilson’s story as an overlooked underdog evidently has some rap storytelling appeal, notably to Eminem who feels some fellowship with the third-round pick dismissed for not fitting a preconceived type. But Wilson also doesn’t carry Lynch’s defiant attributes, which tap so well into the main vein of a rebel music.
Here we can see the prevalence of the phrase “Beast Mode” (and its compound variant) next to alternative Lynch signifiers:
At its peak in 2016, “Beast Mode” accounted for more than 1/8 of one hundredth of a percent of all words in rap lyrics, or appeared about once every 80,000 words. Combined with direct references to “Marshawn” it’s more like once every 66,666 words. If all rap lyrics that year were printed into books, Lynch would appear on average at least once in every volume (The Great Gatsby is 60,000 or so words, and as books go it’s on the short side; War & Peace and Infinite Jest are more than a half-million words each).
More pertinently, guessing rap songs average around 400 words, that’s once every 175 songs, or perhaps a mention of Beast Mode/Lynch per 10-15 albums recorded that year! That seems like a lot. But how can we tell? What can we use for scale?
According to this chart, the combined profile of Marshawn and “Beast Mode” actually passes rap references to “Michael Jordan” during the Seahawks’ Super Bowl year. And while rappers naming Jordan by his full name declined since 2012 (hypothesis: Did perhaps Jordan’s pathetic routine during his Hall of Fame induction speech tarnish his image?), results for the search string “Marshawn + Beast Mode” have so far only ever advanced. But there’s something fishy about this arrangement of the data, and it’s not just those salty Crying Jordan tears: Why are there so few references to Jordan during his playing career? And why don’t rappers mention him at all until after he won his third NBA championship in 1993?
Something doesn’t add up, but it’s a perfect illustration of the power of certain mononyms and the reason we shortened Lynch’s search term to just “Marshawn” in the first place.
There, that’s more expected. Jordan still appears to dip since five years ago, if not a terminal decline as we move more than a generation beyond the source of his hardwood legend, yet his overall footprint in rap music still has a far greater area than that carved out by even Lynch’s “Beast Mode”-boosted curve (note the scale of this graph has changed by almost 4x to fit the new plot, as “Jordan” appears at its maximum about once every 15,750 words, every 40 songs, or say in about two out of every five records). Although we can be pretty sure not every single instance of the name “Jordan” means Michael, the sheer dominance of this magnitude implies any competing namesakes aren’t likely to slice much from His Airness’s true share.
Possibly surprising is the dynamic growth in Jordan’s rap mentions during the later part of the 2000s (apparent also in the “Michael Jordan” graph, and again after his actual playing days). I wonder if that slope represents the coming of age of the first cohort of artists for whom Jordan was always ever a mythical cultural touchstone—a symbol in the music purely code for winning and supremacy, synonym (like “God”) for “greatest”—even more than “just” a premier athlete or simply the man himself. This is so for genuine reasons of community resonance and Jordan’s apex-competitor performance, but again it’s also a factor abetted by the same verbal/branding attributes that make “Marshawn” a name more lyrically significant than “Richard” or “Wilson” or “Bennett” or “Bobby”. For that reason, it will be interesting to hear how Lynch’s profile and his Beast Mode legacy get circulated musically in the future after his own career eventually ends too. We already call Lynch a kind of folk hero—mind that’s a post by a hip hop publication not a sports blog. There’s no shame in falling short of Jordan, but it is worth noting that already “Beast Mode” appearances in lyrics are about the same level as Jordan’s were at the time of the latter’s final retirement.
But about that Beast Mode inflation: Marshawn Lynch is surely not the only person with the name Marshawn in the world (n.b. Marshon Lattimore is too old to be from a phenomenon like “Shaq babies” or Indiana’s “Peyton” boom); still, the fact the name doesn’t show up in rap lyrics until his arrival on the NFL scene is partly why I’m comfortable giving him credit for all the plain old “Marshawn” mentions. Yet you’ve probably already noticed how the “Beast Mode” plot starts well before “Marshawn” first takes hold.
A more complete tracing of the origin of Beast Mode and how it found its way into pop culture is a story for another time, but the important thing to know here is that Marshawn Lynch definitely didn’t invent the phrase. Like Calvin Johnson’s “Megatron” and Sherman’s “Optimus Prime”, Beast Mode was initially a Transformers thing—a term used in certain media when the metamorphosing robots shift into animal form (as compared to their usual machine/vehicle or anthropomorphic shapes).
Although obviously the concept of shapeshifting into an animal is far older, this precise phrasing “Beast Mode” is first credited to the Transformers: Beast Wars series that began in the mid 1990s. From that usage, it also seems to have blended into video game slang to describe characters manifesting a beastly state as in contemporaneous titles like Altered Beast and Bloody Roar. Here is a discussion on the gamer forum Giant Bomb debating the provenance of the term.
As far as I know, Lynch, who was born in 1986, has never acknowledged the connection to Transformers or gaming—perhaps for legal reasons. But he claims he earned the nickname from the way he dominated Pop Warner football which would have been around the same years Beast Wars was airing, so it’s reasonable to imagine it came from a kid who watched the TV show or otherwise heard it by word of mouth—or it might indeed have been parallel thinking. Either way, a similar circulation eventually spread “Beast Mode” into use in hip hop nearly a decade later.
In 2004, when the earliest limited mentions of “Beast Mode” begin to register in the RapStats data set, Google Trends says searches for “Beast Mode” localize mainly in Louisiana, Boosie’s home state. Around the same time, an obscure rap group by the name Beast Mode Click emerges in Georgia. That’s also the same year Lynch started playing at Cal as a true freshman, but it seems unlikely the nickname of a backup tailback on another coast would much stir the Southern rap vocabulary. More probably it grew from the same root in cartoons and slang, and with the same subtext of force and fierceness. Still, as Lynch’s profile grew so did the frequency of “Beast Mode” in song lyrics until by 2008, with Marshawn now playing for the Buffalo Bills in the NFL, both Boosie and a Boston rapper called Akrobatik released tracks of that name.
Neither of those songs have anything whatever to do with Lynch. But ten years later Rap Genius lists more than 50 tracks sporting the title “Beast Mode”, many of them directly inspired by Marshawn’s identity including Ludacris’s 2015 cut that features Lynch prominently in a video parodying Shawn’s notorious press conferences and is conspicuous with Lynch’s Beast Mode brand merchandise. There are also at least 10 Beast Mode albums, from Juvenile’s 2010 record by that name to Future’s collab mixtape with Zaytoven, released in January 2015 at the height of Marshawn mania before Super Bowl XLIX.
Indeed, that month brought the greatest spike in interest in Lynch’s trademark of all time, according to Google Trends. It appears clear that even if Lynch is not responsible for introducing the phrase “Beast Mode” to rap or cultural currency at large, he has certainly co-opted it and powered its recent prevalence. At this point it has become nearly impossible to untangle the two.
It would take a much more intensive investigation to search through all tracks to subtract which uses of “Beast Mode” in lyrics don’t refer to the football player, so I’m going to restrict myself to the the more limiting search string “Marshawn” in the following charts, just to show as conservatively as possible how well Lynch is represented in the music. If you want, you can try to imagine a hypothetical hump between the “Beast Mode” and “Marshawn” plots ghost riding somewhere in the distance above Lynch’s familiar yellow line.
Here for example is how he compares to other outstanding running backs of his era:
Rice is included not because he is an equivalent player but because I suspected his particular notoriety might raise his profile a bit. Indeed, Rice has recently been the second-most named player among this group—perhaps also for the reason that his name is so easy to speak and rhyme. (The greater surprise is probably Tiki Barber continuing to climb well after he should be at all relevant.) But Adrian Peterson and LaDainian Tomlinson are harder to flow with, and Lynch now easily surpasses their peaks and Reggie Bush’s too. And remember: as Beast Mode, he crushes all these guys.
Okay but how does Lynch do against the all-time great running backs (of the rap era, plus the greatest ever Jim Brown)?
(I also tested Shaun Alexander and Ricky Watters, but neither of them drew any mentions. At least not in this data set; Watters definitely talked about himself in his verse in NFL Jams.)
Some peculiar output here, with Walter Payton and Bo Jackson seeming to ride a carousel in and out of fashion since the end of the ’80s. Somehow Emmitt Smith and Marshall Faulk had to retire to get any due, yielding a surprising surge by Smith this decade. Lynch under his own name hasn’t yet reached the highest heights of Smith or Sweetness (the words “sweetness” by the way tracks pretty well with Payton’s plot, but seemed like too general a word to use conclusively) but, again, Lynch’s arc places him ahead for the moment and he measures about as good as any of them during his career. Remember: As Beast Mode he crushes all these guys.
Every running back wants to test his value against quarterbacks, and quarterbacks tend to draw the most valuation for “winning” so they become a handy prop for rappers. Newton, for example, nearly keeps up with Lynch’s plot and Tom Brady is the only one who really exceeds it.
On first thought you wouldn’t guess Brady’s image meshes at all with a hip hop ethos, but of course Jordan’s example shows us how important winning a fistful of championships is. With five Super Bowl titles, Brady is maybe the closest we’ll ever see in football to the player president that Jordan represents for that reason in music. Brady is the top predator in contemporary football. Peyton Manning, by most measures Brady’s equal or better on the field, goes into a death spiral as a rap favorite after losing Super Bowl XLIV. Brady is married to the “hottest [model] in the game” which probably adds to his credibility in the rap language. Manning might as well be Manny to Brady’s Tony Montana. And still Marshawn, in the most conservative estimate, nearly reaches Brady’s jagged peak. As Beast Mode Lynch crushes all these guys.
Speaking of Montana, Scarface’s prevalence in rap chokes any possibility Joe Montana had for relying on his strong name to carry him in the music. Of all the most notable football figures during the hip hop era, according to RapStats’ data set some of the best performers are Deion Sanders, Michael Vick and Randy Moss. Also, even though Natalie Weiner wrote in her review of Christine Michael’s mixtape “pretty sure there aren’t that many rap game shout-outs to Brett Favre,” Favre actually does pretty well for himself with a nice surge during the second act of his career.
Vick and Deion are the real stories here, however, and prototypes for Lynch by way of their example as viral talents combined with identities amenable to a hip hop ethos and pronounceable names (I use Vick’s full name in this chart, partly to keep the other plots in scale and also because just “Vick” brings some of the problems of “Beast Mode” with trail of mentions before Michael Vick arrived as a public figure; the real “Vick” numbers almost double the spire you can see above, and I’m confident they are representative of the former Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback because of the way the shape of the trend echoes the more conservative “Michael/Mike Vick” trajectory). Once again Lynch has already pulled virtually even with these top historical figures by the standard of right now. As Beast Mode, he even edges “Vick” at Vick’s most robust post-comeback peak.
So the prevalence of Lynch’s name in rappers’ mouths is competitive with the most resonant football stars in the period RapStats measures, but it’s the “Beast Mode” label that makes him truly larger than life. It’s worth remembering, for perspective, that apart from the names of actual rappers basketball players (plus Barack Obama) still hold the most verbal currency in the lyrical database:
The likes of Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James (and Obama) all still rise above the Beast Mode name in 2017, while Shaquille O’Neal’s peak fame in the early ’90s actually overwhelms them all (upset of the 20th century?)! But Lynch’s grabs about as big a corner of rap renown as a football player can—look at Brady’s snail trail of a plot down at the bottom of this graph, and he’s supposed to be the Jordan of the gridiron game.
Of course RapStats search strings can sometimes conceal as much as they reveal. The whole point of Rap Genius is to highlight and document the hidden meanings that in rap like any art form lie beneath the explicit words, right? For example, this cute but misleading chart purporting to challenge Notorious B.I.G.’s adage about more money leading to more problems ignores the many complicated ways a rapper might describe their problems without necessarily using the word “problems”—and for that matter the many, many, many synonyms for money. Likewise, there are plenty of ways to address a specific person without using their name directly or even the labels outright associated with them. Look at this lyrical subtweet from 2015 in which The Game praises Future for having not actually murdered Russell WIlson, without actually saying the words “Russell Wilson”.
We will never be able to track all the subtle allusions to all the football stars on the planet, at least until there’s a meta-search available for the Rap Genius annotations together with some (impossible) assurance that all the notes are accurate. There’s also the undeniable limitation that Rap Genius’s database remains incomplete. A transcript of Lil Boosie’s version of “Beast Mode” can’t be found there, for one thing.
So keep in mind that these charts are but outlines of a guide to Marshawn Lynch’s (or any of these players’) presence in rap language. But I want to leave you with one more illustration of the size of his profile in that community. You know the regular refrain that no player is bigger than any team?
Here we see that in a few short years Lynch has made his identity more prevalent in rap lyrics than any of the most well known football organizations. In 2017 only “America’s Team” the Dallas Cowboys appear to do better, but that’s also hard to prove because “cowboys” is such a generic word.
That’s quite a hectic chart anyway, so let’s make the comparison more concise and pertinent to Lynch:
It’s no surprise the Seattle Seahawks don’t possess the year-over-year status in rap that the Oakland/L.A. Raiders do—the team of Ice Cube and N.W.A., with a marauding tradition as a rebellious gang and black apparel. Indeed the Seahawks were essentially wiped out of hip hop’s vocabulary from 1992-2002. For those who don’t remember the 1980s, however, it might come as a shock for the Seattle club to top Los Angeles back in ’88. Actually it does seem odd regardless the historical circumstance, but by 1989 when Sir Mix-a-lot’s “Beeper” came out the Seahawks hadn’t had a losing season in seven years while the Raiders were in one of their slumps, having failed to finish better in the AFC West since ’85. Add to that a thriving Seattle rap scene of the moment and you can kind of see how it happened.
Either way, L.A.’s outlaw football brand quickly took over the territory and never really looked back. Even in the modern era of Super Bowl success, the Seahawks barely make a thump. However according to these data the Raiders now find themselves in another period of rapid decline, at least when it comes to their hip hop profile. With Lynch’s name crossing in the other direction, even during a year when he didn’t take the field, Lynch is in 2017 by himself more talked about in rap than the entire Oakland franchise. With poor local revenues and a looming move to a new city, perhaps this play for a once-core national constituency provides the best explanation yet why the Raiders were so desperate to hitch themselves to Lynch’s popular brand as much as his talents. Remember: Beast Mode crushes them all.