Charis Kubrin
For a 2005 study, Charis Kubrin, associate professor of criminology, law & society, coded every line of more than 400 rap songs for themes of violence, retaliation, misogyny, respect, material wealth and nihilism. Hoang Xuan Pham / University Communications

It’s rare that an academic can expound on ethnographic research and the rift between 50 Cent and Ja Rule. But UC Irvine’s Charis Kubrin can do just that.

She studies rap music in the context of social and economic forces that have influenced hip-hop artists, such as deindustrialization, the war on drugs, and punitive criminal justice policy.

An associate professor of criminology, law & society, Kubrin has written three research papers on the unorthodox subject and recently testified as an expert witness in a case involving rap lyrics.

Her 2005 analysis “Gangstas, Thugs & Hustlas: Identity & the Code of the Street in Rap Music” was among the University of California’s 25 most frequently downloaded articles in 2010, according to UC Press. It was ranked No. 4, with 715 downloads.

Kubrin – who joined UCI this fall after 11 years of teaching at The George Washington University – got into her field of study at a time when politicians and parents were blaming the genre for a host of social ills.

“Work done on rap music is very ideological,” says the L.A. native, whose most recent paper was on misogynistic lyrics. “There are essays that make grand claims about its effect on society, but there is very little empirical evidence to support these claims.”

So Kubrin set out to fill the void, starting with a survey of rap albums that went platinum between 1992 and 2000. Line by line, she examined a random sample of more than 400 songs for themes of violence, retaliation, misogyny, respect, material wealth and nihilism.

She found that 68 percent of the content centered on respect, 65 percent on violence, 58 percent on wealth, 35 percent on retaliation and 25 percent on nihilism. Surprisingly, given public perception, only 22 percent of the lyrics objectified women.

Reflecting on these findings, Kubrin notes that rappers try to project an image of toughness in their music – referring to themselves as “assassins,” “hustlers” and “gangstas” – in order to build a reputation and gain respect among peers. But that image, she says, is perhaps a way to mask real concern about their hazardous environments.

“Nihilism emerged as a significant subtheme in rap music,” says Kubrin, who published a paper (PDF) on the topic. “There’s a sense of hopelessness in songs such as “Death Around the Corner,” by Tupac Shakur, which describes what it’s like to live in fear of violence.”

Gangsta rap’s bleak depiction of urban life denotes a shift in the black music landscape, she says, from the Afrocentric themes of the 1970s and subsequent tunes about partying to those rooted in a starker reality of unemployment and broken families.

“Chuck D of Public Enemy once called rap music the CNN of black America,” Kubrin says. “It contains unbelievable data for social scientists, who don’t always think of studying popular music and lyrics.”