Poetic License

Lyric annotations on Genius divorce meaning from black sound

Rap Genius has long shed the “rap” prefix from its name, a literal and symbolic gesture in concert with shedding a troublemaking co-founder, Mahbod Moghadam, and problematic past by expanding its sights beyond hip hop culture. As Rap Genius, the site’s utility — as a rap translator — attracted criticism as an enterprise invested in mining black culture for white (or non-black) profits. Rapper Kool A.D. once called it “white sophistry” in a song, which went on to be annotated by a user on the site. Moghadam then recorded a response track making fun of the color of Kool A.D.’s skin. This was all back in 2012, though, and might as well be ancient history online.

Rap is just one of many genres made available on the one-stop annotation station known only as Genius, which boasts, in its own words, “the world’s biggest collection of song lyrics and musical knowledge.” Unlike other lyric sites which mostly lie in wait below the Google search bar, Genius is proactive about its image, primarily on Twitter, where it boasts over 402,000 followers and counting. In 2016, it announced a partnership with Spotify, letting listeners go “behind the lyrics” on certain “Genius-powered” tracks. The lyrics area of the site is now genre-inclusive, segregated into modules like “Pop Genius” and “Rock Genius,” and each new addition slowly pushes it further from not only rap, but music, period: There’s “Lit Genius,” a section to annotate prose and poetry, and “News Genius,” for articles, essays, and blog posts. Its Web Annotator module, which brings any web page into the Genius annotative universe, is most germane to what remaining co-founders Lehman and Zechory envision for the future. They want to “annotate the world,” a goal that would see the site’s annotation system embedded in every corner of the internet. The claim is that more annotation equals more knowledge, and that annotations are the best, if not only, means to knowledge. For Genius, knowledge will (eventually) mean profit.

Black sound is no more unrepresentable in text than anything else spoken. Inventions in vernacular are in fact occasioned by the visual-verbal feedback that happens when working with written forms

In line with Genius’s own ambitions, talk about the site has drifted away from earlier rap-focused racial criticisms to thoughts about how the premise of Genius might affect the general infosphere. In 2015, Slate’s Katy Waldman had plenty to say about the site’s cultivated “‘fashionably hyperintellectual’” stance and the “hipness” it painfully craves, but wasn’t at all worried about any lingering racial issues. She was primarily concerned with the way Genius prioritizes cutesy facts and trivia without offering anything that might count as a meaningful reading of the work at hand. It’s like “Harold Bloom experiencing a manic episode,” she writes. Aside from these coolly pragmatic concerns, she felt Genius had successfully unwritten the dicier points from its early history, making those “earlier complaints feel less and less trenchant.” As she concludes, “Genius no longer deserves its early reputation for pimping the butterfly, for exploiting and appropriating black culture.” Waldman’s verdict assumes Genius’s relationship to rap is only problematic so far as it is exclusive.

Genius benefits from the appearance of a redemption narrative. Whereas apps like Uber, Airbnb, Snapchat, Tinder, et al are increasingly prodded to answer for the antiblackness, racism, misogyny, ableism, and transphobia embedded in the fabric of their design and workplace culture, Genius began with controversy and now need only concern itself with doing what it already does better. But Genius, despite its public rebranding, is still heavily dependent on hip hop and, more broadly, black culture.

While severed from rap in name, the site’s persona and cool factor rely entirely on black music. The Genius homepage and Twitter account are dominated by the likes (and likenesses) of Lil Yachty, Drake, Chance the Rapper, Rihanna, Kendrick, Kanye, and Beyoncé. Its Verified video series — which ranges from site-made breakdowns of noteworthy songs to interviews with artists, writers, and producers — by and large features black subjects: Out of the first 158 videos available at the time of this writing, only 53 center non-black artists, and 14 of those are hip hop artists.

Even the company’s voice tries to enact a kind of millennial black vernacular (as brands are wont to do these days). One of those rare non-black interview subjects is French Montana, who sat down with Genius in June. The segment was announced with an official @Genius tweet reading “bruh 😂😂😂” above a loop video of Montana dancing (I guess) against a stark yellow background. “Funny how @sza named her album ‘ctrl’ and that’s exactly what i need over my whole life 😭😭😭,” Genius tweeted upon the release of that album, linking to the landing page for all the lyrics. Tyler the Creator and Lana Del Rey’s recent albums — Flower Boy and Lust for Life — received similar treatment. On the shared night of their release, Genius tweeted “.@tylerthecreator‘s new album is here sounding beautiful as hell 🐝🌻” and “listening to @lanadelrey‘s new album smiling bout as hard as she is on the cover 😁.” An ad for Genius-branded merchandise, framed by flame emojis, says “check my hat yo, peep the way i wear it,” an almost-lyric from Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement,” translated to netspeak. The site’s Twitter oozes with black vernacular, “100” emojis and all.

Genius’s off-site image demands an evaluation of how the site represents the black voices it (still) so desperately needs to maintain its voice. Genius speaks the language of black cool on social media well enough, but all those links have to go somewhere: what happens when it actually needs to translate black art? As it turns out, Genius (still) has a problem getting it right, primarily for its failure to attune itself to the vagaries of black sound. In the Genius environment, music along with language must be standardized to the brand. That imperative becomes a problem when applied to entire genres of music predicated on bucking standardized language and sonic respectability. If the lyrics on the page fail to reflect the music in our ears, what are the epistemological limits to knowing the music in our ears through the lyrics on the page?

This question and its implication — a mismatch between what’s heard and what’s known — threatens to unsettle the entire ethos of the Genius project, which, for now, persists as a mission to disambiguate black musical production. Can Genius ’tate the world if it (still) cannot grasp the black voice?

Back when he was still funny, Steve Harvey joked that any functional “ebonics” dictionary “better be in pencil.” And even still, he continues, the gamut of phatic sounds black folks use to convey meaning would make any dictionary infinite as to be impossible.

You know how many ways we got to say hello? It’ll take up five, six pages … ‘Ehhh now!’ ‘Hhehe, look at ‘im!’ ‘Ay hhehey! Ayy hhehey!’

“What about the one that ain’t a word at all?” Harvey posits, walking across the stage with a stiff lift of his chin in the by-now universal signal for I see you, I acknowledge you, hope you doing good but I’m on the move. “Imma tell you the real reason America is rushing to come up with an ebonics dictionary … Listen to me close.” Harvey pauses. “Ebonics is the leading cause of white folks taking accidental ass whoopings during hold ups.”

Jokes aside, the project of translating the things black people say for a white understanding has been underway as long as America has known a literature to call its own. In an early ’90s monograph, Was Huck Black?, literary critic Shelley Fisher Fishkin unearthed the black linguistic source material for young Huck’s acclaimed vernacular in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A year later, fellow critic Michael North published The Dialect of Modernism, showing how the modernist canon — T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams — depended on the so-called deviances in black vernacular to break from 19th-century norms.

Commonly thought of as a visual experience, race in America is every bit auditory

Desegregation brought a new impetus to knowing (and correcting) black speech patterns. Black children from black communities raised on their own way of talking would now be in a room with white children and their own way of talking. Sociological and linguistic studies of black language burgeoned, adding terms like Black English Vernacular (BEV), Black English (BE), African American English (AAE), and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to scholarly vernacular. These studies often focused on black speech as a deficient derivative of Standard English, a racially unmarked form of speech coincidentally spoken by a majority white population. Part of the problem with black speech, they determined, is its supposed oral primacy, a linguistic inheritance sourced all the way back across the Middle Passage. This assumption persists today.

And yet, black authors, poets, and scholars across the century disclose black sound as no more unrepresentable in text than anything else spoken, that inventions in vernacular are in fact occasioned by the visual-verbal feedback that happens when working with written forms. Charles Chesnutt, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, John Edgar Wideman, Geneva Smitherman, Amiri Baraka, Toni Cade Bambara, Ishmael Reed, Toni Morrison, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Paul Beatty, Nate Marshall, Brit Bennett: just a few names from our nearest centuries that invite a rich interplay between black sound and black text with breathtaking and intuitive results.

Rather than a problem of deviant language, the burden of failure lies with the untrained listener. A significant advancement in the relatively new interdisciplinary field of Sound Studies, Jennifer Lynn Stoever’s 2016 The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening discusses the ways in which our ears are schooled by cultural assumptions around race. Commonly thought of as a visual experience, race in America is every bit auditory, and we don’t hear black people and white people the same way. The most provocative part of Stoever’s argument involves a concept she’s created called “the listening ear.” Literal and figural, the listening ear is the sensory mechanism that allows and encourages us to make racialized judgments about what we hear. The listening ear is a crucial collaborator in representing the sounds and speech of others: whether it’s an author who reserves “eye dialect” for black characters in a story where everyone lives in the same small town, or the programmer writing algorithms for speech recognition programs. Sonic reproductions in text, such as song lyrics, come to us “already listened to,” Stoever claims, by virtue of being informed by the listening ear and the sonic color line.

In this light, Genius (still) feels like merely the latest and most technologically savvy iteration in a long, long tradition. Transcribing and translating the things black people say to find the meaning behind it all remains as viable an enterprise as ever. The immediacy of the internet intensifies it all. In 2014, IBM provided funding for a research team at University of Southern California with the goal of “working toward an understanding of [the] highly active sub-community of Twitter users often self-identified as ‘Black Twitter.’” Many entities, corporate and academic, have vested interest in holding online black communities under a microscope.

In a phenomenon called “digital blackface,” non-black users will masquerade as black, in pursuit of online cachet and/or to disrupt ongoing community conversations on culture and politics. The hashtag #yourslipisshowing, started by Shafiqah Hudson and also enriched by other black women writers and thinkers such as I’Nasah Crockett, Sydette Harry, Mikki Kendall, Trudy, and Feminista Jones, documents instances of digital blackface in real time and, as the name implies, demonstrates the awkward gaps between seeing linguistic difference and knowing how to speak the same language. As any translator can attest, hearing (or reading) something and recreating that something for another medium are uneven enterprises.

For Complex this past May, I briefly discussed the polyvocal quality of Kendrick Lamar’s music, his latest album DAMN. in particular. “DAMN. distinguishes itself as the apex of a career-long experiment with vocal elasticity,” I write,

The album’s questions — formal and implicit — plumb the vocal intertexts that guide our lives: Who am I today? How many me’s do I try on to find the right one? Which version of myself will you love? Which one can I live with? Why do I sound like my mama? Why’m I still telling that tired old story? Who the fuck prayin’ for me?

No one song captures the spirit of the album better than track 12, “FEAR.” Though the longest song by a matter of several minutes, “FEAR.” can barely contain all its voices, all vying for supremacy in one auditory space. Bookended by voicemails from a cousin who quotes (and interprets) the word of God, the song also includes the voice of Kendrick’s mother, relayed via free indirect discourse by a seven-year-old Kendrick; later, 17-year-old Kendrick ponders death in anonymity; Bēkon (formerly Danny Keyz) interrupts to damn us all. All the while, a sampled 24-Carat Black track, 1973’s “Poverty’s Paradise,” scratches for the foreground: I don’t think I can find a way / to make it on this earth.

Digital blackface, as the name implies, demonstrates the awkward gaps between seeing linguistic difference and knowing how to speak the same language

“FEAR.” is a heteroglossic wonderland that makes itself difficult to represent with written words. Genius, as ever, is up for the challenge. Shortly after DAMN. debuted — 12:30 a.m. that night, to be exact, prior to the album’s availability on streaming services — the Genius Twitter account sent a flame emoji-framed invite for followers to “unpack ALL the lyrics to @kendricklamar’s DAMN.” with a link to the album’s lyrics in full. Standalone phrases with viral potential were tweeted as images with the lyrics superimposed onto the rapper’s somber visage, lines like “You overnight big rifles then tell Fox to be scared of us” or “We all woke up, tryna / tune in to the daily news / Lookin’ for confirmation, / hopin’ election wasn’t true.” Shortform posts collected certain verse snippets under specific themes like nirvana and the Old Testament. Genius was the first to tackle the mumbo jumbo sounding section on “FEAR.” where Lamar’s speech is revealed to be flipped and reversed, Missy Elliott style: Why God, why God do I gotta suffer. 

There’s certainly no shortage of material for interpretation, but remade in Genius’s image, “FEAR.” could not look more flat. Here the lyrics are rendered in a sans-serif font called Whitney, all-over highlighted in grey like the pages of an introductory textbook. Sliced into the usual markers like “bridge,” “verse,” and “chorus,” the many voices snap into a familiar narrative of song progression more befitting another song, another genre — perhaps pop. The page evinces little effort to recreate the sonic qualities of the work. The recordings from Carl Duckworth are italicized. The segment spoken backwards is denoted with a single parenthetical: “(Reversed).”

Though annotated up and down, interpretations from Genius contributors aren’t exactly reparative. These annotations mostly follow from the blueprint Genius has already laid out, focused on lyrical analysis that divorces sound from meaning, merely cracking open the words on the page — reading between the lines at best. In what the page calls verse three, Lamar makes an overt reference to Rihanna’s accountant woes, famously publicized by her own song “Bitch Better Have My Money.” Genius users notice the reference, and the lyric is highlighted — “How did the Bad Girl feel when she looked at them numbers?” But Riri isn’t the Bad Girl. She’s the bad gal (or gyal), a patois inflection Lamar noticeably includes in his pronunciation of the word. You don’t have to be part of the Navy to know that. Just a good listener.

Even if Kendrick poses a somewhat exemplary challenge for lyric representation, similar gaps are apparent across the Genius catalog. For “Party,” the fifth track on Beyonce’s platinum-selling album 4, Genius reports the first lines of the André 3000 feature as follows:

Set the scene, 3,000 degrees
I ain’t worried about them fuck niggas over there, but they
worried about me

Having listened to the song more times than I care to recall, my rewrite might look more like this:

Set the scene, 3,000 degrees
Ain’t worried bout them fuck niggas over there,
but they worry bout me

Perhaps trivial to some, the modest tweak raises a question about how this reading was missed in the first place. Less subtle even than Lamar’s bad gyal, André’s phonic omissions — characteristic of Black American Vernacular, also of poets heeding a particular syllabic structure — are plain to hear. For some reason Genius, and the anonymous (human?) author behind the page, would prefer the lines as a complete sentence, closed and grammatically sound.

Genius loves lyrics and Genius loves knowledge and seems fully committed to bringing these two together in a unique way. Unfortunately, like all great loves, these ones demonstrate Genius’s biggest weakness. The site is genuinely in awe of the revelatory power of lyrics, yet it posits this as an experience users can singularly find with the Genius interface. Genius feels more like an invitation to engage with lyrics as told by Genius than with the music itself. Not only does lyrical analysis have its limits, period, adventurous projects such as DAMN. and virtuosos such as André 3000 reveal that a Genius approach to music may not be as omniscient as it thinks it is. In a catch-22 of its own making, Genius depends on black genius for its branding, but must muzzle the truly genius parts of black art to suit its brand.

Under titles that I now know as songs, Solange’s book enables rather than hinders an incorporation of sound with reading. This poetry is music already listened to

Unsurprisingly, Genius is always on the move to add to its collection. Last year, the script for Beyoncé’s Lemonade posted the day it aired “for those who couldn’t watch and need quotables.” Late May, just after Frank Ocean surprised fans with two versions of a new single, “Lens,” the account tweeted that it “went over frank ocean’s new single with a microscope” and linked to selective annotations of the work(s). Meanwhile, popular black music seems as uninterested in the lyric qua lyric as ever. A reading of Lemonade, Blond(e), or DAMN. made from lyrics alone is no reading at all — says this literary critic — let alone the dozens of recent projects from artists whose sonic aesthetic absolutely depends on the phatic: Future, Young Thug, Fetty Wap, Migos. Even bracketing the racial dimension, I struggle to imagine “adding knowledge” to Sia’s music with only lyrics in hand. Without breath, her music looks dead.

Jay-Z’s recent 4:44, too, dramatizes the limits of analysis that treats music and lyrics as a storehouse of easter eggs ready to be ferreted out. As a tentatively autobiographical project, 4:44 is the lyrical playground Genius can only dream of, chock full of not-so-subliminal shots at Kanye West and peeks into the inner life of Jay’s marriage. The album is annotated all over on Genius.com, and the title track, “4:44,” claims the most views by far, with the exception of “The Story of O.J.” — both tracks are some of the juiciest in terms of gossip. Annotations for “4:44” retrod the steps in Jay’s relationship to Beyoncé documented by the lyrics themselves. And while one ’tate notes the sampled track by Hannah Williams & the Affirmations, not a single annotation makes mention of how the track actually sounds — full of wails and uncomfortable pauses — and how this could and should influence our interpretation of the song. The samples in 4:44 overfloweth, a point Jay is not shy about. Alongside the album, he released two Tidal-exclusive playlists: “4:44 Inspired By” and “4:44 Samples,” with directly incorporated works. 4:44 is not just about the lyrics any more than any other rap album. I learned a lot less going through Genius’s annotations than I did reading criticism from writers who lovingly attended to lyrics as inflected by the album’s sonic (and visual) atmospheres — astute listeners like Justin Tinsley, Jack Hamilton, Doreen St. Félix, Justin Charity, and Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris.

As points in its favor, Genius’s entry into other mediums like videos and feature-length articles are gestures that bring music back to life again. In a series called Check the Rhyme, patterns and cadence are color coded and highlighted alongside the music, a visual that encourages a viewer to listen differently. Other videos feature artists, producers, and writers talking about their work, an accessible archive that fans and hip hop scholars alike should cherish. Meanwhile, longer form criticism allows verified experts to contextualize their observations and talk about music with the depth (or frivolity) it requires, utilizing all the senses. However, I wonder how much these additions actually reify a tonal problem Waldman identifies, whereby Genius imagines itself as “the final word” on the pieces it interprets.

In September of last year I was lucky enough to receive a numbered copy of Solange Knowles’ art book A Seat at the Table in advance of the album of the same name. Half photography, half text, I was most entranced by the latter, lyrics that I didn’t yet know were lyrics. Lyrics that read like poetry. Under titles that I now know as songs, the text there moved and grooved in way that allowed me to return to them and see the music. If asked which came first — lyrics or poetry — my answer would be the former; this poetry is music already listened to. And while seeming to know itself as no substitute for the experience of sound, Solange’s book enables rather than hinders an incorporation of sound with reading.

From UPN to Shea Moisture, so many entities across so many industries have used blackness for the come up, only to abandon ship once mainstream (coded: non-black or white) success looks sustainable. Right now Genius runs on a coolness generated from black culture, but it has been clear about ambitions that aim broader, more mainstream. Its quest to annotate the world means an eventual confrontation with how it mediates (or embraces) the blackness of its platform. As the clicks pile up, will Genius only mine black culture until it no longer needs to? Will it foster what looks like a promising move to amplify the real voices of musicians and producers and recruit critical listeners to talk about music beyond the annotations? Will Genius adapt to the groovy soundtrack of our language(s)? Or is this iteration of itself merely the bones left to be buried beneath an enormous empire?

Lauren Michele Jackson is a doctoral student and writer-ish person living in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the New Inquiry, and the Awl among other places. She tweets feelings @proseb4bros.