The Questionable World Of Lyric Sites – Are They About To Implode?

“Rap Genius is a tool far more powerful than Twitter, far more powerful than Instagram for connecting artists with fans because Twitter and Instagram are like television – a fart in the wind – but with Rap Genius, everything you write is on the wall of history, everything you write is going to be there forever, in a thousand years when aliens come down.”

Mahbod Moghadam speaks with a preacher’s zeal from his apartment in Brooklyn, New York about the website he co-founded with two friends who met at Yale and bonded over a love of Nas and prose-poetry. You might’ve heard about Rap Genius already. It was set up in 2009 ostensibly as a lyric site and a place for fans to discuss their favourite hip-hop tracks. These days once a track drops online one of the million account-holders will have transcribed the lyrics within a few hours and the annotations – mainly playful comments, opinions, exegesis and related links – will start to form. Part of the appeal of Rap Genius is that major hip-hop stars have verified accounts: Snoop Dogg, Nas, 50 Cent, RZA and more (see a snapshot below) join in discussions about their lyrics, connecting directly with their fans. Thanks in part to investment and high-profile celebrity support, this vibrant social network is mushrooming rapidly.


Recently, however, the future of Rap Genius and other lyrics sites has begun to look precarious. Many lyric sites are unlicensed and last week the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA) issued takedown notices to the top 50 lyric sites in the US, giving them 20 days to stop their “blatantly illegal behaviour”. “These lyric sites have ignored the law and profited off the songwriters’ creative works, and NMPA will not allow this to continue,” said its president David Israelite.

In terms of digital currency, lyric sites are booming. Last week, for example, Rap Genius was the music website with the ninth largest percentage of visits in the UK (Source: Hitwise). Some lyrics sites run pop-up ads, other don’t, but, argues David Lowery, the man who partly inspired the lyric site takedown, investment is a form of monetisation and way of profiting from another’s work. At the end of 2012 Andreessen Horowitz, the Silicon Valley venture capital fund, invested £7.5million in Rap Genius following investments from Nas, Ashton Kutcher and now most recently, Pharrell Williams. Licensed or not, there is money being made.

Lowery, an academic and songwriter/performer in Californian alternative-rock bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, created a list as part of a study for the University of Georgia of the Top 50 ‘undesirable’ lyric sites with Rap Genius at the top. You can read it here. In response the site’s acolytes rallied with cries of ‘Save Rap Genius’ including support from some high-profile celebrities:

Co-founder Ilan Zechory defended Rap Genius to the New York Times in these words: “Music is only a small part of what we do. Rap Genius is an interactive encyclopedia for annotation of all texts – anyone can upload and annotate texts relating to music, news, literature, religion, science, their personal lives, or anything else they want.”


Views differ over the ethics of unlicensed lyric sites, as you can see from the infographics above and below. In one corner some younger artists shrug and accept the ‘wild, wild west’ nature of the internet, as Jay Z described it early this year, unbothered that sites might be making money from their words. But others, such as punk poet John Cooper Clarke, think they should be pulled down immediately.


But while the faceless might well be closed for business in the next week, Moghadam says there is a ‘Zero per cent chance Rap Genius will shut down”. A couple of days after the takedown was announced Sony signed a deal with the website licensing their lyrics, with Sony CEO and music industry overlord Martin Bandier complimenting Rap Genius as a “new and exciting way” of connecting fans to artists.

So what’s next? The ever-optimistic Moghadam says negotiations with the rest of the music industry are “going very well”. Poetry Genius, News Genius and Fashion Genius are growing and you’re as likely to read Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s own annotations of the introduction to her controversial book ‘Lean In’, Junot Diaz’s notes on his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao or a close-reading of John Milton’s Paradise Lost as you are to learn more about A$AP Rocky’s ‘Pussy Money Weed’. Next week the Genius app will launch.

Yet, the reputation of Rap Genius is far from squeaky clean, particularly when compared with most Silicon Valley start-ups with multi-million dollar investments. Over the years various incidents have led to mixed coverage about the three founders (Moghadam, Zechory and Tom Lehman) including high-profile beef with US music critics, Das Racist, Mark Zuckerberg and, erm, Warren Buffett (Moghadam told the business mogul to ‘suck my dick’ in a since-deleted tweet). Recently Moghadam attributed his erratic behaviour to a now-removed brain tumour. “With the tumour I always had this violent evil streak in me where sometimes I turn into Meursault from L’Étranger and do things I regret,” he tells me. “It’s gone now so I feel a lot less pressure”. Profiles and comments often contain detail about the trio’s outlandish dress sense, celeb connects and eccentricities rather than the Genius idea itself.

So what’s the end game for Rap Genius? To make people cleverer? To entertain? Moghadam quotes investor Horowitz. “Ben sees the power of Rap Genius to draw in these 16 and 17 year olds with rap lyrics and the next thing you know they’re close-reading Shakespeare with the same ear that they were reading rap lyrics and with the same tongue-in-cheek voice and passion.” Mark Andreessen explained on a Rap Genius forum why he was investing in the company: “It turns out that Rap Genius has a much bigger idea and a much broader mission.. Which is: Generalise out to many other categories of text… annotate the world… be the knowledge about the knowledge… create the Internet Talmud.”

Whether the self-described ‘court jester’ and his two co-founders genuinely believe they are creating the ‘new printing press’ remains to be seen. There are some hyperbolic claims. “One day no one will be able to conceive of reading a text whether it’s poetic or prosaic without it being Genius powered,” says Moghadam, who believes too that every single writer will have a Genius account. We discuss David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’, perhaps a perfect novel if it wasn’t for having to skip back and forth to the 388 endnotes (some of which have footnotes of their own). “Infinite Jest was a cry-out for the Genius power. You have to keep skipping around. But if you put them in a Genius interface it would’ve made them 10,000 times easier to read.”

Of course many of the annotations aren’t quite up to Foster Wallace calibre and even Moghadam admits he cringes over some translations. And despite many rappers supporting Rap Genius, the site has been accused of not really getting hip-hop, treating it flippantly from a position outside its context. “Coming from a place of privilege, rap music for some of these kids is a ghetto safari,” said ex-The Source managing editor Reggie Ossé on his Combat Jack podcast. “Something they can observe from the safety of headphones or laptops, and what interests them and excites them the most is nihilistic, dysfunctional personalities.” As a crowd-driven resource there’s a lot of stuff that won’t enhance your life.

Nonetheless it’s an extraordinary concept. Out of a simple lyric forum an extraordinary pursuit of knowledge and depth of meaning is taking form.

Main Photo: Donavon Smallwood