Web entrepreneur Marc Andreessen announced today that his venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz is investing $15 million in lyrics annotation site Rap Genius. The site, which interprets rap and other lyrics through user-generated internal hyperlinks, has grown rapidly over the last three years, developing an enthusiastic community of contributors and an ever-expanding database of songs.
In a post on RapGenius.com, Andreessen lays out his firm’s thinking behind the investment with Rap Genius’ trademark annotations. In the process he demonstrates, intentionally and otherwise, the site’s advantages and flaws. Some of the annotations are helpful: Those that are unfamiliar with the firm can click on “Andreessen Horowitz” to find out a little more about it. Others are gratuitous, even a little perplexing: When Andreessen makes a reference to how he finds rap “as comprehensible as ancient Mesopotamian,” the reader is invited to learn more about the Mesopotamian king Sargon the Great, including his origin story and how he made everyone write in “a syllabic Akkadian script.”
While the site’s explanations can be unhelpful and even wildly inaccurate, it fares better in comparison to its competitors. Lyrics sites have long been one of the most obnoxious and least reliable areas of the Internet. If you’re searching for the words to some old pop song, you’re likely to find yourself besieged by click-through ads, turn-of-the-century Web design, and lyrics sheets riddled with errors. If it’s a new song, you might brave the ads only to find that no lyrics have been written out at all. Listeners who are looking for a little close reading can head to SongMeanings, but their crowd-sourced interpreters will likely tell you that every song is either (a) just like that one time with this one crush the commenter really liked, or (b) secretly about psychedelics.
Rap Genius is much better than the competition. Its contributors aren’t always as astute on lyrics outside their favorite genre, but even outside of hip-hop it remains the best option for drawing out any allusions that might be there. It’s already moved into assembling exegeses for everything from the latest Taylor Swift to “Gangnam Style.” This is not only a natural way (the site’s name aside) to expand its audience, but also helps its creators move beyond a time when they were accused of treating rap as uniquely requiring translators, and catering to ignorant white audiences.
Andreessen sees no limit to Rap Genius’s expansion:
There’s music in other genres and other languages, but what other categories? Poetry, literature, the Bible, political speeches, legal texts, science papers. And those are just the start. We think the community will continue to expand beyond rap into all culture.
I agree with Andreessen: Just as sites like Quora and Wikipedia don’t limit their areas of expertise, there’s no reason Rap Genius should restrict its framework to what Jay-Z is talkin’ about. But it will be interesting to see whether Rap Genius and its specialized community can remain useful so far outside of its title area—and whether the site can generate any return on this investment. Of all places, Rap Genius should remember what comes hand-in-hand with increased capital resources.