Genius (formerly Rap Genius) is a North American digital media company. Originally founded in August 2009 by Tom Lehman, Ilan Zechory, and Mahbod Moghadam, the site allows users to provide annotations and interpretation of song lyrics, news stories, sources, poetry, and documents.
Originally launched as Rap Genius with a focus on hip-hop music, the company attracted the attention and support of celebrities, and venture capital enabling further growth. The site expanded in 2014 to cover other forms of media, such as pop, literature, R&B, and added an annotation-embedded platform. That same year, an iPhone app was released. To reflect these new goals, the site re-launched as Genius in July 2014. An Android version was released in August 2015, and in 2016 and 2017, the company began producing music-focused original video content and hosting live events and concerts.
Founding and early years (2009–2012)
Genius first started as a crowdsourced hip-hop focused site, and was originally named Rap Exegesis. The site changed its name in December 2009 to Rap Genius because "exegesis" was difficult for users to spell. It was created in August 2009 by founders Tom Lehman (who "entered the first line of code" for the website on August 19, 2009), Ilan Zechory, and Mahbod Moghadam, the three of whom met during their undergraduate years at Yale University. Lehman and Moghadam came up with the idea for the site in the summer of 2009 when Lehman asked Moghadam about the meaning of a Cam'ron lyric. After Lehman built the earliest version of the site, he—along with cofounders Moghadam and Zechory—decided to leave their jobs at D.E. Shaw and Google to pursue the idea full-time and bring it to fruition.
In 2011, with the site "drawing over 1 million unique visitors per month", Rap Genius applied to start-up incubator Y Combinator, and "became the fastest-growing start-up in Y Combinator history", obtaining $1.8 million in seed funding which enabled the founders to occupy offices on Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In 2012, the company received an additional $15 million investment from Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz (also known as a16z), prompted in part by partner Marc Andreessen's own past effort to build a group annotation feature into a web browser. Ben Horowitz described Genius as "one of the most important things we've ever funded". The company's three co-founders were named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 in December, 2012.
Establishment of verified accounts
The popular success of the venture was exemplified by the participation of artists like Queensbridge rapper Nas, 50 Cent, RZA, and A$AP Rocky, prompting the company to create a "Verified Artists" designation. Verified accounts are offered to established artists, where they annotate, moderate and edit their own lyrics. Such annotations are highlighted in green, rather than the usual grey. Nas became the first verified artist, using the platform to post numerous explanations of his lyrics and dispel some misinterpretations, as well as to comment on the lyrics of other rappers he admires. As part of his support for the website, Nas "released the lyrics to his new single "The Don" on Rap Genius the day before putting out the song itself".
Masta Killa, Inspectah Deck, RZA, GZA, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, members of the American hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan, also obtained verified accounts on Genius. In late 2012, novelist Bacchus Paine became the first current release prose author to voluntarily annotate part of her own work.
Early controversies (2013–2014)
In an effort to extend the concept into other genres of culture, Genius launched several new channels in 2013 including News Genius, Rock Genius, and Poetry Genius. The service also added the ability for outside publishers to integrate Rap Genius's platform into other websites to create annotated articles. However, the company also experienced some issues familiar to the online content field.
Music publishing dispute
In October 2013, Rap Genius was one of fifty sites targeted with notices by the National Music Publishers Association for the unlicensed online publication of song lyrics. Unlike Genius, most of the sites that were targeted were ad-supported. In response, Zechory stated that they "can't wait to have a conversation with them about how all writers can participate in and benefit from the Rap Genius knowledge project". In 2014, Rap Genius entered into a licensing agreement with music publishers covering both past and future publishing of music lyrics.
Google search penalty
In December 2013, Google penalized Rap Genius for violating their backlinks guidelines, in particular participating in blog networks, by removing them from its top search results. Even for the search query of "rap genius", results from rapgenius.com did not appear on the top results. Instead, the top results showed Rap Genius' Twitter, Facebook, and Wikipedia pages, as well as news related to the penalty. This happened after blogger and Rap Genius contributor John Marbach exposed its link scheme to manipulate Google search results by offering Tweets or Facebook shares in exchange for linking to Rap Genius with keyword rich texts. Rap Genius posted an apology, promising to stop and reverse the practice. Rap Genius also pointed out that its competitors were doing similar or worse practices, and asked Google to look at "the whole lyrics search landscape" and improve its lyric search results.
Ten days later, after removing links in violation of Google's Quality Guidelines, Rap Genius partially recovered from their penalty.
Resignation of Mahbod Moghadam
Fast Company named Rap Genius co-founder Mahbod Moghadam to its list of Most Creative People of 2013 in May of that year. By early 2014, however, Moghadam had reduced his involvement in Genius to a part-time role, due to complications from his surgery for meningioma, a benign brain tumor. In May 2014, Moghadam resigned after annotating the manifesto of Isla Vista spree killer Elliot Rodger in ways that were labeled as being insensitive.
Expansion and rebranding (2014–2015)
New apps and features
The company rebounded with the release of an iOS app on January 28, 2014, also called "Genius". Genius co-founder Tom Lehman said at launch: "This is the true launch of Rap Genius. Right now, more than half of our traffic comes from mobile devices. Soon, it will be 100%".
In March 2014, Genius launched a feature allowing users to "embed" annotated texts on other websites. Felix Salmon of Reuters was a noted early user, using the platform to create an annotated breakdown of Janet Yellen's first FOMC statement. Nas embedded the entire annotated Illmatic album onto his website to promote the release of Illmatic XX.
Re-launch as "Genius" and expanded funding
On 12 July 2014, reflecting its recent expansions and growth into a platform, Rap Genius re-launched as Genius. The co-founders said that the change was because most internet users fail to "dive into" stories they find in greater detail, and that Genius aimed to "help us all realize the richness and depth in every line of text". The company also raised an additional $40 million in series B funding led by investor Dan Gilbert, chairman of Quicken Loans and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. With its operations expanding, Genius relocated from Williamsburg, Brooklyn to Gowanus, Brooklyn. Genius also obtained buy-in from artists, including investments by Eminem, Nas, and Pharrell.
At one point, rapper Kanye West, a fan of the site, submitted a mock up of a redesign to investor Ben Horowitz. The redesign was not used although Lehman was impressed, telling Business Insider that future redesigns could use elements from it. In mid-2015, along with its redesigned logo and webpage, Genius released its Android app, which initially allowed users to search for and vote on annotations.
Staff expansion and new partnerships
Hip-hop journalist Rob Markman was hired by Genius as its manager of artist relations. In September 2015, Genius partnered with The Washington Post to annotate the various presidential debates being held at that time. The following month, Genius announced the hiring of Brendan Frederick, formerly of Complex, as director of content.
In 2015, Rick Rubin, A-Trak, The-Dream and Eminem were among those who created verified accounts. Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon has also been verified and has contributed several annotations. Composer and Lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda also has a verified account with which he frequently joins discussions on the lyrics of his two musicals, In the Heights and Hamilton.
Launching content (2016–present)
Genius began offering original content in 2016, beginning with a "Behind the Lyrics" integration offered in collaboration with Spotify that "pairs pop-up annotations with select tracks from the streaming service as well as exclusive artist content", launching with content from Pusha T, Tinashe, and Diplo. Initially available only on iOS, "Behind the Lyrics" became available on Android in April 2017.
Genius began planning for the creation of original video content, and in June 2016 announced the hiring of Regina Dellea, previously of Mic, as head of video. Planned shows that Dellea was hired to oversee included "Genius Level, an Inside the Actors Studio-style interview series hosted by Rob Markman". In 2016, Genius launched the video series "Verified", "featuring artists like Mac Miller, Ice Cube, and Common decoding their songs on camera", and has since launched various other series, including "Deconstructed (in which producers dissect the tracks they created) and "IRL", a career-spanning interview series initiated with DJ Khaled as the first subject. In September 2016, Genius announced the addition of Steve Stoute, founder and CEO of the brand development and marketing firm Translation, to its board of directors. In 2017, Genius collaborated with Logic to produce an episode of "Verified" for every song on his album. Logic had previously name-dropped Genius in his song "Slave II", from the 2016 album Bobby Tarantino, with the line "I'm a Rap Genius like Rob Markman".
Genius began hosting live events at their Brooklyn headquarters in 2017. On April 26, 2017, Genius hosted a listening party with rapper Wale for the release of Wale's album, SHiNE. The first Genius Level live interview was in May 2017, with The-Dream. On September 7, 2017, Rob Markman interviewed Issa Rae before a live audience. Genius held its first live concert event on September 9, 2017, with the IQ/BBQ festival at the Genius headquarters. The event featured performances by artists including Pusha T, Dej Loaf, A Boogie wit da Hoodie, and was produced in partnership with Adidas and Atari.
Genius began selling branded merchandise in mid-2016, and engaged in "a t-shirt collaboration with rapper Pusha T's Play Cloths line for Art Basel" in December 2016. In 2017, Genius expanded its merchandise offerings with the launch of its "1997" collection, with a set of styles and themes inspired by cultural events of 1997.
Works and articles on Genius are presented with various lines highlighted in grey; by clicking on these lines, pop-up annotations are displayed which provide additional details and context for the section in question. Users can provide their own annotations by highlighting fragments of text. Texts on Genius are sorted into various topic channels, including rap, rock, and pop music, literature, news, historical texts (History Genius), sports, television and film (Screen Genius), and "X"—any other subject not covered by other categories. The site also offers the "Rap Map", a Google Maps display featuring profiles and placemarks for geographical locations related to rap culture or mentioned in rap songs.
Registered users can upload, correct, and annotate texts. They can also offer suggestions to improve already published texts and annotations. Editors and Moderators help to generate and monitor content to ensure quality writing. Users earn "IQ" with every published annotation. Points are rewarded on the basis of not only the quantity of text that is annotated, but also the quality of the annotations. Users are rewarded with greater editorial and moderating privileges as more IQ points are awarded.
Contributors to Genius receive points, "IQ", for annotations and suggestions on each channel. The IQ system employs both direct points, for example a 10 IQ point increase for an annotation, and a voting system. Especially insightful and popular annotations gain positive reviews, increasing the IQ value of an annotation. As of now, IQ has no redemption purpose, but serves as measure of a contributor's impact and work on the site. Editors and Moderators gain additional means of obtaining IQ, including publishing completed texts and reviewing the work of others.
Spotify includes the ability to display lyrics from Genius for some of its tracks, allowing users to "watch annotated lyrics for songs as you listen to them". Bringing up the album art while playing a track reveals a black tab behind the art that says "Behind the Lyrics", which gives users access to the feature.
As of 2017, key staff members and contributors to Genius include founders Tom Lehman and Ilan Zechory; additional board members Ben Horowitz, Dan Gilbert, and Steve Stoute; chief content officer Brendan Frederick; and Head of Artist Relations Rob Markman.