(This is a work-in-progress, and I’m seeking feedback on it. Feel free to do so.)
Alan Lomax was not satisfied that Lead Belly was just playing a song. He wanted to know what it meant, and suspected Lead Belly’s audiences felt the same. “What is ‘green corn,’ anyway? Tell us as you sing the song,” the folklorist told the African-American musician born Huddie Ledbetter during a recording session for the Library of Congress in 1940. When Lead Belly continued to play “Green Corn” without annotating his lyrics, Lomax asked again a few seconds later. “Green corn is yellow corn, when it’s green,” Lead Belly replied. According to Greg Milner, while Lomax was fairly certain the song referred to green corn whiskey, Lead Belly was adamant that they were “just words in the song,” and that most people who sing it don’t even think about the words.”
Alan’s father John had discovered Ledbetter several years earlier, when scouring the penitentiaries of the American South for “authentic” Negro folk songs, unaffected by the uplifting forces of jazz or the black churches. Lead Belly’s songs were musically complex and powerfully delivered, but those considerations were overshadowed by the fact that the tunes were also occasionally laden with tales of lawless behavior and sung in a regional dialect that often eluded the Lomaxes’ comprehension. The relationship was contentious, to say the least. They would force him to play in prison garb instead of the nice suits he preferred, and John adopted the nettlesome habit of staying onstage to “translate” the songs as Lead Belly played them. While such practices seem appalling to modern-day sensibilities, they arose out of a commonly held notion at the time that African American blues and folk music came from a different world, and couldn’t stand on its own without translation into an idiom recognized by upper-middle-class, white audiences.
The Lomaxes’ relationship with Lead Belly was primarily one of translation, a practice that continued in new and different forms as the years passed. Half a century later, as Ice-T and N.W.A. crafted artfully villainous responses to economic racism and the LAPD’s militarized surveillance culture, journalists and reporters were tasked with trying to translate this ostensibly “dangerous” culture for the rest of the country. They often highlighted the violent content of the lyrics independently of the music they were designed to accompany, and apart from the supremacist social contexts that spawned them. This was nominally “mass” media coverage, but the discourse was woefully narrow, shaped as an attitude-driven social panic by some, and a terrifyingly real, FBI-tracked menace by others.
Over the past decade or so, there have been countless “ironic” translations of rap and rap-inspired club music designed to appeal to music fans who, more than a half-century after the Lomaxes translated Lead Belly, can’t be bothered to investigate the language of the “street,” preferring to laugh at its mutilations of “proper” suburban life or OED English.
In the 21st century, rap has long been synonymous with pop culture, and slang emanating from African-Americans has found kinship in the language used by country musicians (as well as Southern white reality TV stars). Yet despite this, there still exists a strong desire in many quarters to “decode” rap music’s meanings for other audiences. In The Anthology of Rap, two English professors attempted to reframe rap lyrics as poetry, a well-intentioned yet error-laden gesture (not to mention an unnecessary one: rap isn’t poetry, it’s rap. Why isn’t that enough?). Jay-Z’s Decoded is an outlier here, first for involving larger social and economic issues along with autobiography, and second for doing what Jay-Z loves to do: reaping the profits from feeding the mainstream.
Which brings me to Rap Genius. For those who follow rap, or music/technology news, Rap Genius is a tired subject by this point. It’s been covered twice in The New York Times, and given a tough-but-fair explanation in Gawker. In brief, Rap Genius is an annotation website for rap lyrics. Start an account, and accumulate a “Rap IQ” by providing explanations for bars, verses, even single words uttered by rappers. Click on a lyric, and the explanation pops up next to it, like the lyric’s own crowdsourced thought balloon; an algorithmic Lomax guiding you through the tough thicket of rap meaning. Unsurprisingly, lots of rap fans really like Rap Genius (and tech nerds, and actual rappers themselves— RZA, Nas, and others have participated). It’s very useful as a just-in-time reference source for new music, and it’s a sufficiently novel idea with enough active users that the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz recently invested $15 million into it. Clearly, Rap Genius was one of 2012’s killer music apps.
But to what effect? In the Times, Willy Staley mainly worried about the status of mondegreens, those misheard lyrics that mutate in the liminal social space between hearing a song and reading its official transcription. “In this online world of prescriptive listening, there is no room for fanute,” Staley writes, referencing a garbled French Montana lyric that quickly mutated into a Twitter meme. Others are more concerned about the broader impact the site will have on rap’s legacy. “If Rap Genius is as successful as it hopes to be,” Sargent claims in Gawker, “it will effectively re-write rap history,” by becoming a one-stop shop to discover the “meaning” of rap lyrics, largely independent of an intended purpose to sound great alongside particular beats. This argument is persuasive: Rap music is much more than rap lyrics in the same way that a film’s performances, photography, art direction, etc. amount to much more than a screenplay. Moreover, as with the history of pop music more generally, rap is enjoyed as much as sound than definitional meaning. Rap lyrics don’t often lend themselves to critical exegesis past “whatever the hell it’s supposed to mean, it sure sounds great.” Chuck Berry wasn’t “driving over the hill” in “Maybellene,” he was “motorvatin’”. Which one sounds better?
In a broader sense, though, Rap Genius is updating a much longer tradition in which the lyric stands as the bearer of musical meaning and enjoyment. This is not simply the domain of rockist critics dismissing pop music as meaningless fluff, or U.S. senators playing LPs backwards to uncover hidden suggestions, but something more basic about audiences’ interactions with music. As Simon Frith explains, “in everyday terms a song—its basic melodic and rhythmic structure—is grasped by people through its words.” This gets at the basic idea of how most of us learn to appreciate music: as text. Though music has permeated the ambience of our everyday lives for centuries, we’ve always been most easily able to interpret and discuss music with our eyes. This leads to a paradox of interpretation: for rappers as for pop musicians, lyrics aren’t just words, but (as Frith claims) oratory; the context of delivery and performance is just as important as the words’ semantic meanings (which explains the litany of artists who rightly roll their eyes when asked what their lyrics “mean”). This basic truth—easy to accept in theory but very tough to recreate in prose—has haunted music criticism for decades, best summarized in Roland Barthes’ “The Grain of the Voice.” “If one looks at the normal practice of music criticism…it can readily be seen that a work…is only ever translated into the poorest of linguistic categories: the adjective.” In a way, the adjective (and the “similar artist” trope) functions for music criticism the way the annotation does on Rap Genius: providing an authoritative textual link between a lyric and an an idea.
Because they’re deemed so crucial to a full understanding of music, song lyrics have naturally acquired a significant presence on the web that significantly predates Rap Genius, as well. Google the title of any song, and 1) the search engine will likely autocomplete “lyrics” after the song title, evidence of the millions of search queries that have preceded your own, and 2) you’re faced with dozens of fly-by-night, advertising-laden, likely bot-created lyric sites with names like AZlyrics, lyrics007, Sing365, and the perfectly titled Songmeanings.net, which is actually somewhat reputable, incorporating the results of user comments into its lyric translations. For the most part, though, these sites don’t seek to contribute to any larger project, but are merely (like so many other online music startups) crude cyberstorefronts for Google-abetted advertising money, driven by music fans’ desires to gain a deeper understanding of their favorite songs.
In a much more elegant and savvy version of the lyric-bot model, Rap Genius seeks to work Google searches to its advantage as well. In a brief Tumblr post, Andrew Nosnitsky explained how the site works: “The annotation format gives them a good excuse to create a standalone page for each individual line, which maximizes their presence on search engines. Any way you search…you’ll be likely to draw one of the fifty or so individual pages they have up, each titled after every individual bar, which will then redirect you to the main lyric page…It’s a clever smoke screen for an old fashioned Google bombing.”
The site’s capacity for “Google bombing” is where Rap Genius separates itself from its lyric translating predecessors and contemporaries. Emerging from a very modern form of capitalism that strives to turn every bit of stray information, conversation, or data into a commodity, Rap Genius can trace its business model back to the early 1980s rise of brand marketing and speculative Wall Street trading, which was applied to the newly interactive web in the early 2000s, under a business model typically referred to as “Web 2.0.” Rap lyrics are technologically coded only to be culturally “decoded.” No longer are they only culturally specific, commoditized utterances designed to fit with a beat, delivered with a particular tone and pace and made to circulate in ways that reaffirm locality and individuality at the expense of outsiders and challengers. On Rap Genius they become individual data points, ranked by Google and exchangeable for venture capital and the parochial form of status known as “Rap IQ” within the site’s virtual boundaries. The real genius of the site is its business model: getting music fans to provide free labor that is simultaneously pleasurable (for rap fans) and profitable (for the site’s owners).
Though there are criteria for contribution and annotations are vetted through a hierarchy of contributors (like Wikipedia), it doesn’t necessarily matter how trivial or pointless Rap Genius annotations are. As with any monetized database and interactive web archive, the more entries there are, the better. As the Rap Genius Genius Tumblr shows, the appeal for many users seems to be using a cool social networking app and gaining “points” than contributing to an ever-expanding body of scholarship. Many “explanations” aren’t anything more than unnecessary rephrasings of otherwise very straightforward (or purposefully nonsensical) lyrics, animated gifs, snarky commentary, and most troublingly, ill-informed armchair generalizations of the type typically found in YouTube comment sections. One would think that Scarface’s “My Block” would be straightforward enough to resist further explanation in the first place, let alone one that inserts violence, drug abuse, and poverty where they were not mentioned, or even tacitly referenced. It’s troubling to think that such superficial translations exist on a site that for thousands is viewed as a playground for “firsties” while for many others is viewed as an authoritative encyclopedia.
Rap Genius’s founders are savvy about their positionality with respect to racial power dynamics and rap history, in a manner gleaned from 21st century web culture. This is the primary difference between the site’s translation politics and those of earlier eras. The Lomaxes largely ignored the lopsided racial and economic dynamics of their dealings with Lead Belly, rationalizing that their project’s goal was a noble one: documenting and popularizing a previously invisible American folk tradition (like Francis Child, Carl Sandberg, and Lawrence Gellert before them). Decades later, the Rap Genius founders are products of a globalized, neoliberal and ethnically diverse American society in which the ideals of much rap music resonate strongly (inasmuch as it’s still largely created by upwardly mobile young male entrepreneurs). Co-founder Mahbod Moghdam, of Persian descent, remembers being stereotyped and harassed in high school because of his own ethnicity, experiences that led him to seek solace in rap that seemed to emanate from a similarly marginalized mindset. In a way that only well-educated, hyper-aware Millennials can pull off, the founders are also intensely self-aware and prone to bouts of ironic self-aggrandizement. Moghdam admits that there’s a strain of Orientalism to Rap Genius, but sarcastically specifies that “it is more akin to the OG orientalists like Lawrence of Arabia,” also winkingly name-dropping Gobineau’s notorious Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races. Though it’s easy to target Rap Genius as a bastion of white rap nerds redefining the very idea of rap, the reality of the site’s driving force seems more nuanced, and maybe even more sinister: irony-laden, apolitical detachment.
But it’s not just Web 2.0 capitalism that defines Rap Genius. There’s a larger goal for the site—and with many like it—to acquire a significance and power known only to the world of religion. In an interview, investor Ben Horowitz explained that over time, via a site like Rap Genius, “knowledge about knowledge… becomes as important as the knowledge itself.” Horowitz claims that the site’s real predecessor is nothing short of the Talmud, inasmuch as it translates a dense text (the Torah) into something accessible and knowable. Alan Lomax himself was possessed of a similar desire to translate into data points and map the entirety of the world’s vocal music through what he dubbed Cantometrics, a taxonomical system of 37 criteria linking singing styles to social structures. The quasi-religious quest for a perfect archive of human knowledge has possessed internet entrepreneurs for decades. Discussing his company’s ongoing drive to make the world’s information searchable, Google co-founder Sergey Brin claimed that “the perfect search engine would be like the mind of God.” The capacity to capture, tag, and publicize the entirety of the world’s information is equivalent to a holy quest; one might add Matthew 12:36 to Brin’s and Horowitz’s religious comparisons: “But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.”
For all of his faults as a translator who didn’t acknowledge his own authority over the artists he brought to wider public attention, Alan Lomax was an incredibly bright man who was fiercely driven to continue expanding his knowledge. In John Szwed’s biography “The Man Who Recorded the World,” he writes of the University of Texas undergraduate exploding one night in 1931, shouting, “Damn it! The hardest thing I’ve had to learn is that I’m not a genius.” 81 years later, Lomax’s quandary is a different issue. Rap Genius aims for a comprehensive archive of rap meanings, while redefining the idea of “genius” altogether. The intelligence of a single person is replaced by a self-correcting form of knowledge derived from the crowd, which often leads to populist rhetoric that papers over very real power differentials and well-established hierarchies. The site’s investors invest their venture with bold religious significance, but practically speaking, perhaps the real genius is in transsubstantiation, via a technological capacity to turn pleasurable activities into value-producing labor. It’s the same logic that fuels Wikipedia and Google search results: a free market of anonymous contributors is a vastly better information aggregator and processor than an individual human brain, and a killer app is all that’s needed to derive stable meaning from the messiness of culture.