What’s the Rap on Rap Genius?

My wife used to blast LCD Soundsystem’s “Dance Yrself Clean” during her morning commute to gear up for a day of teaching math to teenagers. Another friend of mine has a playlist of favorite rock anthems that get him ready for a big presentation. For me, there’s nothing better than a strong dose of hip-hop to provide some work inspiration, particularly on those Friday mornings when I’m working from home and can turn up the volume without fearing that my cubicle mates will judge me for bumping Organized Konfusion.

So a couple Fridays ago, my apartment is filled with the sounds of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid m.A.A.d city and I’m getting things DONE. That is until “Backseat Freestyle” comes on, of course, and I’m forced to take time out to fully appreciate – and decipher – its vicious lines.

In the past, I might’ve gone to one of many places to feed my curiosity – SongLyrics, LyricsFreak, Sing365, LyricMeanings, the Online Hip-Hop Lyrics Archive – but this time, I headed to my new addiction: RapGenius.com, the lyrics site founded by three Yale grads in 2009.

You may have heard of Rap Genius due to its recent $15 million investment from famed venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz. That sounds like a lot for a site that meshes lyrics sites, Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary. But there’s more to the Rap Genius community, now 250,000 members strong: instead of just providing lyrics followed by a list of comments about their meaning (as the aptly named LyricMeanings does), users on the site can also annotate every word and line. On each song, you can hover over a lyric and get a text, image, or video explanation of its significance.

By itself, this seems like a useful feature, but not a revolutionary one – until you think about how the site aims to “annotate the world”, to provide explanations and context for not only rap lyrics, and not only lyrics of other genres, but everything on the Internet. That’s a feature that Marc Andreesen, the co-creator of the Mosaic browser, says (in his annotated explanation of the investment) was meant to be included in his creation. Its utility is obvious now; with the surplus of information at our fingertips, having some way to make sense of it all is invaluable.

But if Rap Genius is indeed going to take on the world, it’s worth seeing how its first pursuit – rap – has gone. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been exploring the site to see if I can tell why it’s grown so quickly.

I started out with some of my favorite lyricists, those whose rhymes I thought I knew fairly well; it didn’t take long to start feeling ashamed of my own ignorance. Within a few minutes, I got to know Madelyne Woods, the BET presenter referenced by Phife on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation”, and learned the provenance of the dialogue that kicks off Black Star’s “Respiration” (the “Style Wars” documentary). Then it was on to Common, and a discovery of Rap Genius’s “killer feature”: Verified Artists.

The community geniuses at Rap Genius have built up credibility by getting a significant amount of artists to join the site and explain their own songs, through both text contributions and video interviews. In one, Common does a deep dive into his past when discussing “Resurrection”. Many other rappers provide unrivaled insight into their work, including complex lyricists like GZA, Pharoahe Monch, and Jean Grae (who reveals a love for ultracool astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson).

If I could add one name to the wishlist, it’d be Aesop Rock, whose dense raps are full of mystery to the average listener. Rap Genius users have made some brave attempts, but if I’m really trying to understand lyrics like “Treasure, loose cannons span the starboard bow/The clippership dipped in truth famine pressure/Cabin fever meter pegging ludicrous” (from “Big Bang”), I think I need to learn from the writer himself.

I’m not the only one who’s unsure about the veracity of some of the site content. Adam Mansbach, author of the hip-hop-obsessed “Angry Black White Boy”, was quoted calling some Rap Genius explanations “straight up wrong” in a recent New York Times article about the site. There’s undoubtedly some truth to that – no matter how many verified artists join its ranks, Rap Genius is sure to be dominated by people who are merely guessing at meaning, and possibly spreading misinformation along the way. In this way, it’s really not so different from Wikipedia.

But artists don’t contribute to Rap Genius merely to set the record straight. The site is also a great promotional vehicle, a way to introduce a music-hungry audience to their latest work (they don’t even have to try that hard, as evidenced by this video of a seemingly stoned Nas explaining the needs-no-explanation chorus of his single, “The Don”).

Rap Genius also provides an avenue for personal connection; the explanations these artists provide are as humanizing as any tweets they could send. One artist who appears to get this is Murs, who not only offers dissections of his own work but tries his hand at the songs of other performers, often with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Take his analysis of The Beastie Boys’ “So Whatcha Want”:

Mike D: “Well I think I’m losing my mind, this time/This time, I’m losing my mind; that’s right/I said I think I’m losing my mind, this time, this time I’m losing my mind”.

Murs: “Mike D believes he is currently losing mind as opposed to previous time where he almost went insane. But since he IS losing his grip on reality it’s hard to be sure. So he repeats it in hopes that someone will be able to certify his insanity.”

This may seem a little unnecessary but, well, that’s part of what Rap Genius is about. Lyrics – particularly rap lyrics — include a lot of ridiculousness and lines that probably don’t require such close study. This is a site where you can get a video explanation from Sean Price breaking down such poetry as “But the father do floss/I make your mom suck my dick with barbecue sauce,” or the following explanation from user DrTommy of a particularly colorful entry from Azealia Banks’s “212”:

“A statement of name-calling, suggesting through yoniphobic language that the

female she is speaking to is of lower class, credibility, popularity than her, rightfully,

and that she is going to prove this by outdoing her.”

If this type of analysis makes you a little uncomfortable, you’re not alone. Shortly after Rap Genius’s investment windfall, Gawker published a primer outlining the issues some have with the site. While some of the revelations were not too surprising (really, the Ivy League founders of a startup can act like asses sometimes?), the charges of subtle – and sometimes not so subtle, if you ask Byron Crawford– racism rang some bells. It’s not hard to read some of the explanations on the site as translation of rap into more palatable “white” language.

The Gawker article compared the site’s cheap humor to that of the popular rap graphs, which get laughs by turning common rap lyrics into academic charts and graphs — aka, stuff white people like. Another parallel – one that makes Rap Genius look a little better – is the ongoing intellectual dissection of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”, whose second verse touching on Fourth Amendment rights has inspired many legal minds to speak out. One professor, no doubt looking to gain a foothold with his students, even wrote a scholarly paper about the song’s inaccuracies. Rap Genius users provide similar analysis, but in a forum that listeners are a little more likely to read (hopefully leading to fewer invocations of Sean Carter during traffic stops).

Actually, breaking down the nuance of legalese is one service that Rap Genius plans to offer following the Andreesen investment. Law Genius already has a Facebook page, and Harvard scholar Lawrence Lessig has a verified account. The community also has started on a number of historical documents and speeches, from Barack Obama’s recent acceptance speech (up and annotated within hours of his re-election) to The Bill of Rights. There are even poems from the likes of Emily Dickinson. It’s clear that the site in its current form doesn’t quite fit all these other types of content, but there will soon be a whole family of sites to cover its different niches.

It will be interesting to see how the Rap Genius universe evolves over the next few years as the world-beating mission begins to become reality. Will the original users stick around? Will the explosion of perspectives be a positive gain, or will we want to turn off all the voices? The idea that we can potentially know what everything means is both appealing and distressing. Sometimes a little mystery can be nice – especially with music, where part of the fun is in learning these things for yourself, and slowly getting to feel like you’re part of an exclusive club.

If these new explanations turn out to be too much, though, it should be easy enough to opt out. Rap Genius will still be there when I really need it, like on those slow Friday mornings when I’ve just got to know more about Kendrick Lamar’s Eiffel Tower fixation.