This month's world-changing tech innovation: a rap lyrics website. Lyric-annotation site RapGenius.com just landed a $15 million investment, leading to a press blitz this week as tech and entertainment sites rushed to profile the three kids who are going to change the game. But why'd they land so much money? And why are so many rap fans and critics shaking their heads? Here's our guide.
What exactly is Rap Genius?
Rap Genius is an annotated lyrics site. Users explain rap lyrics line-by-line or even word-by-word — click on a lyric, and a box will pop up with an explanation.
Why should I care about the site?
A few weeks ago, the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz — an early investor in companies like Facebook and foursquare — invested $15 million in Rap Genius. (The Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz is Marc Andreessen, the author and founder of Netscape Navigator, God rest its soul.) They plan to one day "annotate the world."
Hey, that doesn't sounds so bad.
In a lot of ways, it's not. Rap Genius is innovative in a few basic ways. Anyone who has ever searched for lyrics online knows how treacherous an experience it can be — Rap Genius, though, is readable and has a good internal search engine. It also has a dedicated user base — the lyrics to every song on Kendrick Lamar's unreleased new album, which just leaked yesterday, are already on Rap Genius.
Are the explanations, you know, correct?
Maybe, but therein lies a major problem. One great thing about rap and its ever-evolving vernacular is that the meaning of everything isn't readily apparent. To quote Willy Staley in a New York Times Magazine column about misheard lyrics:
Part of the joy of listening to a lot of rap music is having all this unfold for you as you become more familiar with it.
Okay, so why not just avoid the site?
Fair enough, and that's easy to do. But if Rap Genius is as successful as it hopes to be, it will effectively re-write rap history, including songs and lyrics that have a secret meaning, or even no meaning at all. The site has begun to bring in rappers to annotate their own lyrics, but this would be an effective whitewashing of decades of art without the input of its creators or intended audience.
Another big issue with Rap Genius is that it trades on a particular noxious brand of humor that has infected the internet for years: white people "translating" rap lyrics in arch, academic prose. The most famous examples are "rap graphs," but there's also things like this Twitter account, which turns 50 Cent's tweets into "Queen's English." This humor has also been a staple of Bill Maher's stand up act.
I've laughed at those rap graphs — what's wrong with that kind of humor?
The presumption — one that partly fuels Rap Genius, if even inadvertently — is that rappers are too dumb to use "correct" English. A very early instance of the joke was a chain e-mail from the 1990s that offered a dry translation of Biggie's "One More Chance (remix)" under the guise of a competition in an Oakland school district that asked students to "translate ebonics."
But why crucify Rap Genius' founders for the acts of their users?
Well, Rap Genius' founders also have a touchy history with race. After Staley critiqued Rap Genius in a column, co-founder Mahbod Moghadam recorded a rap diss in reponse—
Wait, a co-founder of Rap Genius recorded a rap diss?
Two of them, unfortunately. An old insult of music critics is that they are failed musicians, but in this case it actually seems true. In that diss track, Moghadam lamented that he can't use the N-word. In another freestyle, he compared Dapwell of the rap group Das Racist, who is of South Asian descent, to a "dirty cigarette."
Well, that's just one guy.
True, but Rap Genius nurtures a young, white-leaning user base that desperately wishes to do things like say the N-word. I once got an email from a RapGenius.com intern asking me why I don't think it's okay for white people to use that word.
Huh. They kind of seem like dicks.
Well, they kind of are. In early August, Rap Genius brought Chief Keef into its office to become a "verified artist." A video of the occasion shows a visibly disinterested Keef flirting with a female employee and generally looking like he would rather be doing something else. When Rap Genius posted the video, they used the title, "Chief Keef Gets TOO HIGH to Explain His Lyrics on Rap Genius."
Oh. So what?
I'll let Stephen Kearse of RESPECT magazine explain:
The real idiots are the folks at Rap Genius. Being high had nothing to do with Chief Keef's lack of explanation. Let's be real: Chief Keef doesn't give a damn about wordplay. Even if he did, wordplay is only one aspect of hip-hop. Tone, mood, rhythm, cadence, flow and a million other things are just as important as the actual ABCs. By posting this video, Rap Genius tried to cover up the underlying silliness of its mission, but ended up exposing it even further. Rap is more than lyrics and it's definitely more than
geniusesfools attempting to explain it.
What will Rap Genius do with their investment money?
They want to expand the concept into things like poetry and law. They already have annotated the Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, for example.
Well, some snotty kids got $15 million. At least the people who founded the culture that made them rich are also living on the high hog, right?
Not quite. A lot of the originators of rap music — many of whose lyrics provide part of the content that RapGenius' business model is based on — are far from rich. Kool Herc, who maybe more than any one person can be said to have invented hip-hop, can't afford required surgery, and when these kids are parading around in suits and fresh kicks it leaves a bad taste in a lot peoples' mouths.
Well, maybe they're doing things with the money that will strengthen hip-hop culture and the rap community?
Well, there's this, from the Betabeat story:
Girl, we finna have an entire STORE of gear for each site," he wrote in an email that could benefit from some decoding itself, "not just shirts, you can get a Rap Genius onesie, a Poetry Brain parka …
Hold on, did he really use the word "finna?"