The Genius annotations to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly: Do they unpack its meaning, or obscure it?

Do Genius Annotations Help Us Understand Song Lyrics—or Bury Their Meaning in Trivia?

Do Genius Annotations Help Us Understand Song Lyrics—or Bury Their Meaning in Trivia?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 7 2015 10:00 AM

What’s the Yams?

How the annotation site Genius awakened the hyperintellectual close reader slumbering within us all.

Literary critic and author Harold Bloom, left, and recording artist Kendrick Lamar.
Literary critic and author Harold Bloom, left, and recording artist Kendrick Lamar.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo. Photos by Mark Mainz/Getty Images and Chris Weeks/Getty Images for Reebok

Genius, formerly known as Rap Genius, the annotation site that launched in 2009 to decode Cam’ron lyrics and now dreams of “annotating the world,” has assigned me an IQ of one point. I’m proud of this point. It means that a suggestion I made on someone else’s annotation of a Kendrick Lamar line was upvoted—twice. In Genius nomenclature, a suggestion is a gloss that clarifies, challenges, or otherwise appends to an existing annotation, or ’tate; an upvote on your suggestion will earn you 0.5 IQ points, whereas an upvoted ’tate yields between two and 10 points, depending on who is doing the upvoting. (Endorsements from the brocaded overlords of Genius—moderators, editors, educators, three levels of Verified artists who move through the forums in clouds of oracular mystery—count for more.)

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer.

You get downvoted if your ’tate or suggestion runs afoul of Genius best practices: DO say something interesting, DON’T be too wordy, DON’T plagiarize, DO include a relevant image. And the site’s editors reserve the right to vanish a gloss entirely. Naturally, all these rules and guidelines are themselves annotated, in a never-ending spiral of exegesis that makes your head spin. “We try to avoid NERDSPEAK in most cases,” reads one bit of official embroidery from the FAQ page, expanding on reasons why a “white hat” noob like me might find her contribution in the trash heap. Not that that’s carte blanche to mangle the language: “Please don’t misspell ‘entendre.’ ” At any rate, “You’ll receive some sort of explanation” for the deletion, the instructions assure contributors, “unless your explanation was totally whack.”

But forgive me—already, I’m lost in the weeds, a cast of mind not exactly discouraged by Genius. If the site, created and overseen by Ilan Zechory and Tom Lehman, isn’t your go-to spot for lyrical illumination when the new Action Bronson album drops, maybe you know it as the upstart critical platform that lured Sasha Frere-Jones away from the New Yorker. Or the would-be hip-hop authority ironically run by white Yale grads. (“White devil sophistry” is how Das Racist described Genius in a 2012 song, its lyrics available on Genius.) Maybe you’ve seen the articles unfolding Genius co-founder Mahbod Moghadam’s bad behavior. He finally stepped down from the company in May, after uploading the Isla Vista Manifesto and encircling it with commentary about shooter Elliot Rodger’s “beautifully written” prose and “smokin’ hot” sister. Or maybe you are one of the Genius Teaching Fellows committed to “using Genius as a pedagogical tool,” or a fiction writer experimenting with its software for artistic effect, or a venture capitalist awaiting returns on its more than $50 million nest egg.

Advertisement

Well, enough about you, lower-case genius. As Genius gains legitimacy, shedding its reputation as a playground for the antics of its bro-ish founders, it is also widening its scope. No longer limited to rap or even music, it comprises more than a million texts from The Waste Land to the speeches of Abraham Lincoln to the back of a Tylenol bottle.* And its ambitions are larger still: In the future, its owners hope, users logged into their Genius accounts will be able to range around the Web leaving annotations wherever they wish. Their “followers” will see the comments they produce—graffiti meets Twitter. It’s a far cry from the project’s origins in an East Village apartment six years ago, when Lehman first asked Moghadam to explain a line from a Cam’ron verse. The text: “80 holes in your shirt, there, your own Jamaican clothes.” Moghadam’s attempt at a gloss—Jamaicans are poor; poor people wear tattered garments—was ’tate zero, the prime ’tate. It was also incorrect (and a little racist).

Today, the Genius entry on that line reads: “Jamaicans often wear mesh tank tops with a lot of little holes in them. When Cam’ron shoots you 80 times, you’ll have 80 holes in your shirt.” (Per the site’s best practices, the gloss is accompanied by a shot of a Jamaican in said holey garb.) This step toward accuracy, sensitivity, and nuance mirrors the site’s arc as a whole. Genius’s founders, once accused of “exploiting black culture for commercial gain,” “slumming,” and “white-washing,” are now hosting digital salons in which luminaries like Junot Diaz, Michael Chabon, and 50 Cent lift the veil on their own work. Other Verified artists include Migos, Marilyn Manson, Sheryl Sandberg, Carrie Underwood, and Chief Keef. (The first Verified ever, the OV, was Nas.) Everyday fans are higher-quality too. Drawn perhaps by the stars, perhaps by Internet hype, fresh waves of commenters have swept in to proof and elevate Genius content, making the earlier complaints feel less and less trenchant.

So Genius circa 2015 appears somewhere between Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary in the pantheon of crowdsourced reference giants. All three companies “democratize knowledge production,” but unlike the former, with its suspicion of original contributions, Genius encourages interpretation and analysis. And unlike the latter, the hipness it aspires to is mature and cerebral, not juvenile. You might define Genius’s vibe as “fashionably hyperintellectual.” This is a site dedicated to the proposition that “an Internet that is Genius-powered will help us all realize the richness and depth in every line of text,” one that equips members with a glossary of literary devices—Anagnorisis! Epanodos! Prosopopoeia!—before launching them at the McDonald’s breakfast menu. Zechory has described Genius as “the equivalent of having a smart friend who knows a ton about a subject.” I imagine it more as Harold Bloom experiencing a manic episode.

But Genius’s charm and, well, genius may lie in revealing how many of us actually want to be, or at least be around, manic Harold Bloom. If the site is democratizing close-reading, it’s doing it in two directions—by treating all texts as worthy of explication, but also by claiming that we are all explicators: that the critical impulse thrives outside the ivory tower. Genius takes rap’s lyric fathomage and virtuosity as a given—a smart but not especially groundbreaking move. (I’m a little less sure about all the interpretive attention lavished on pop rhymes: Members’ valiant efforts to find deeper meaning in an Ed Sheeran chorus are perhaps energy better spent slow dancing to an Ed Sheeran chorus.) But the company’s real leap of faith seems to be in us, a gaggle of Internet geese who may or may not wish to engage in the kind of symbol hunting and linguistic nitpicking that is usually the stuff of musty college seminars.

Advertisement

Well, surprise! We do wish to engage. By the end of 2013, 1.5 million of us were visiting Genius every day, and the site’s popularity has only grown since. But does Genius, having identified in us a real exegetical desire, deliver on its promise?

After more than a week spent glued to the platform’s lasagna of layered detail, here is my answer: Yes. No. It depends.

Genius is a peerless decoder: It excels at providing context, defining terms, sniffing out half-buried references. In the best case scenario, it will track down a fact that explodes or radically ventilates your understanding of a lyric, such as when one user pointed out, via a ’tate on the words “burn, baby, burn” in Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry,” that the catchphrase originally belonged to “the soul DJ Magnificent Montague, and became the rallying cry of the 1985 Watts riots—another historic moment of urban unrest close to Lamar’s native Compton.” (Who was Magnificent Montague? What started the Watts riots? Welcome to the Genius rabbit hole.) The boards reward knowers of zany trivia. An oft-upvoted comment on the Rihanna/Kanye/McCartney collaboration “FourFive Seconds” observed that “the combined length of Rihanna’s first verse and hook is forty-five seconds.” (Neat!) And the notes can be indispensable for basic comprehension: A ’tate on Riri’s newer single, “Bitch Better Have My Money,” helpfully explained that “Louis XIII” is a luxury cognac, not a weak-willed French monarch, and that “bra, bra, bra” is onomatopoeia for gunshots. (Occasionally a lyric’s sense will just elude everyone. “Smack it in the air,” snarls Beyoncé on “7/11.” “Smack what in the air?” asks the note on the line, before answering its own question: “Who knows.”

That’s one use for crowdsourcing: Convene a big enough group of Internet fans, and their mingled expertise will congeal into a nerdy bloodhound, retrieving any fact with a scent of relevance. And for an allusive artist like Lamar, someone concerned with the forces of history and the presence of the past, such a data-rich approach seems valuable. (“The new album … a thicket of inspirational, historical references,” Jay Caspian Kang recently wrote in the New York Times, is “almost designed for parsing in a college classroom.”) Consider To Pimp a Butterfly’s “King Kunta,” named for the 18th century slave Kunta Kinte, who had his right foot chopped off after he tried to escape from a Virginia plantation. (He and his descendants were the subject of the 1977 ABC miniseries Roots, and the Alex Haley novel on which it was based.) Knowing Kinte’s backstory clarifies the sense of lines like “Everybody wanna cut the legs off him”; it also adds hue and shadow to Lamar’s portrait of his own flight from poverty, on one hand, and America’s racist past, on the other—a flight accomplished via the blessing of fleet metrical “feet.”

Advertisement

Lamar’s songs are strewn with Easter eggs awaiting discovery. And the density of his verses coaxes a corresponding sophistication in analysis from the Genius-ers, a sense of intensified collaboration, until the whole experience really does start to feel like college again. For one user, the first beats of “The Blacker the Berry,” carry hints of the nursery rhyme “eeny meeny miny moe,” infamous for its racist lyrics. “This would tie in perfectly with the theme of the song,” UnBalanced (IQ: 45,593) wrote excitedly. “Anyone else hearing this??”

“I think this is referring to the way white people are so indecisive on their opinions of black people,” replied DeMic (IQ: 8). “White people try to dress and act black cuz they think [it’s] cool, then act like they’re better than black at the same time.”

I have no idea whether Kendrick Lamar intentionally wove the rhythms of “eeny meeny miny moe” into his rap to suggest white ambivalence about black culture, but if DeMic and UnBalanced teamed up to write a book of criticism, I’d buy it.

Of course, not all artists syringe Lamar-level complexity into their lyrics. Nor do Genius contributors consistently bring their A-game. Sometimes a joyless gloss drains the effervescence and jitter right out of a song, as when a user tried to resolve a line from Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk,” “I’m too hot (hot damn)/ Make a dragon wanna retire, man,” with the ’tate: “Dragons are mythological creatures commonly associated with breathing fire. Against Bruno, it would give up in a contest of who’s got more heat.” It’s hard to figure the value of that kind of margin note, unless you are a dragon slayer trying to make your dragon roll over and die of boredom. Likewise, older works can get shafted, perfunctorily broken down rather than lovingly taken apart and reconstituted. I was wrecked when a pair of couplets from my beloved “Gangsta’s Paradise,” by Coolio, were shorn of mythic desolation and grandeur by the gloss, “Coolio’s enviroment [sic] made it hard for him to achieve his goals.”

Advertisement

Let’s not even mention the occasional offense against manners, or unquestioning assent to a text’s underlying bigotry. (One ’tate on a regrettable line from “King Kunta”: “As a fat vagina, life can appear ugly only to reveal latent worth.”) Those happen in seminar too.

One of my biggest problems with Genius relates to a churning sense of data overload. As useful and elucidating as the site’s patchwork of facts, allusions, and definitions can be, all that trivia can make your final understanding of a song feel high but not deep, intricate but not meaningful. It was as if each comment were another encrustation over an elusive center. “I can dig rapping,” says Lamar on “King Kunta,” and a Genius member informs us that he’s quoting the second verse of a James Brown song. But why call back to that line? What’s Lamar communicating? He’s just been talking about yams, a symbol of pride and power—and a root vegetable harvested from the ground. Is “dig” his way of binding the grace of rap to the grace of yams? Does it relate somehow to the next stanza, in which he takes some “digs” at inauthentic rappers? Dig—that favorite verb of Seamus Heaney’s—became a weird emblem of my dissatisfaction with Genius, a sign that we were too busy blanketing new facts over old to unearth an essential message. (It didn’t help that when I posted my reading of “dig” as a suggestion to the “King Kunta” page, I got downvoted—ouch.)

Perhaps it makes sense that users in the age of “explainer journalism” would rather inform and demystify than interpret. And sure, a lot of this is personal preference: Eliot’s footnotes to The Wasteland overwhelmed and maddened me too, until my teacher helped me understand why anyone would invoke Thomas Malory in stanzas about postwar Europe. But my other quibble with Genius flows from the expectation that a “democratic” close-reading site would foster rowdy, unpredictable, occasionally deranged discussion. Signing up, I assumed (happily) that things would sometimes go off the rails. That adventure and mayhem lay ahead. That, in cooking the transcendent critical omelet, a few eggs would probably get broken.

But Genius leaves most eggshells intact. It turns out that the site’s ratio of wildly implausible to vanilla comments is super small, thanks in part to an upvote/downvote system that ushers safe, sensible, defensible glosses to the top. These are the Ike Eisenhowers of exegesis, the takes a majority can get behind. And, worst of all, once elevated, they enjoy all the sacred authority consensus can bestow. Genius presents its chosen ’tates as the final word, unveiling them the moment you click on highlighted text, whereas the also-rans can require several more clicks to access. For a populist close-reading platform, the site’s animating ethos feels strangely conservative, even authoritarian.

Advertisement

Take the evocative Kendrick Lamar lyric “I’m black as the moon,” glossed like so:

“Just as the dark side of the moon is never lit up, the real face of black culture is never seen in today’s America.”

Snooze.

“This may also be a nod to Black Moon, a 90s NYC hip hop collective.”

Double snooze.

Scroll half a page down to a different user’s ignored suggestion—“the moon is bright when you see it from here”—which, to me, accents the fluid and un–pin-downable quality of supposedly stable values like “light” and “dark”—and you start to get somewhere.

(Am I still bitter about being downvoted? Maybe.)

I wanted to investigate a different musical genre to see if the bias toward blandness held true across the site. Figuring that black-clad subversives might congregate on the indie boards, I moused over to Pop Genius to check out the state of the conversation around Death Cab For Cutie. The boards for a popular Death Cab song, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” a sweet and melancholy number about love and death, had some interesting background on technical difficulties that arose during recording. And it seemed to “get” the essence of the lyrics:

“The song uses both religious imagery and belief, and skepticism of religion, to a great combined effect: Whatever waits, they’ll be together.”

On the lines, “No blinding light/ Or tunnels to gates of white/ Just our hands clasped so tight,” someone had smartly commented: “The point of the lyric is not atheist in intent (nor religious); what Gibbard is trying to achieve is a sense that nothing meets expectations, even death, and also that he and his love are outsiders, and they don’t get the typical afterlife experience.”

This seemed apt, if not revolutionary. It had been upvoted three times. I decided to leave two comments, one highlighting a possible source, and one unpacking a word choice.

“Just our hands clasped so tight,” I wrote, putting on my section-asshole hat. “A possible reference to Philip Larkin’s poem “An Arundel Tomb,” which also describes two lovers entering what could be the afterlife. (The poem’s tone is agnostic and searching.)

In the poem, the stone effigies of the earl and countess on the tomb seem unremarkable to the speaker until he sees:

with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

And then I waited for the professor to come along and pat me on the head. Or smack me with a ruler. Six days later, the Genius community is still ignoring my ’tate (which, I guess, is better than being downvoted or smacked, but still.)

My second comment, also ignored, addressed the song’s money quatrain: “If Heaven and Hell decide that they both are satisfied/ Illuminate the NOs on their vacancy signs/ If there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks/ Then I’ll follow you into the dark.”

I love what one Genius member called Death Cab’s “humorous and haunting visual”: Heaven and Hell brightening the NOs on their signs “like cheap hotels.” Having little to add there, I just stuck to the verb “embark,” positing that it resonated with an older, more amoral/ambiguous vision of the afterlife, in which souls sail across the river Styx on Charon’s ferry.

Again, bupkes. I’m not claiming that these were brilliant acts of criticism, but I didn’t feel as though I’d participated in—or even eavesdropped on—a lively discussion. Maybe that’s because listeners in 2015 are less excited about a decade-old Death Cab album than about Kendrick Lamar’s latest. Yet, as I said, I’m not convinced that class gets much more raucous or inspiring when hotter tracks are on the curriculum. (Notes on a fresh Sufjan Stevens song, for instance, struck this student as similarly limp and perfunctory.)

And so, here is my ’tate-sized take on Genius:

Genius no longer deserves its early reputation for pimping the butterfly, for exploiting and appropriating black culture. Sometimes it showcases the butterfly, pinning it in place so we can appreciate it on a new plane (as with “King Kunta”). Sometimes it dissects the butterfly, toning lyrical iridescence down to a faint dazzle (as with Coolio). Sometimes, though, it seems as though the butterfly has escaped Genius altogether, left it cupping handfuls of stale facts, left it feeling flat-footed and ordinary. Even then, however, it’s nice to see a latent critical faculty awakened in so many, an itch to interpret. There’s a lepidopterist inside all of us, maybe.

*Correction, April 7, 2015: This article originally misidentified T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land as The Wasteland