Rap. Unwrapped.

Three web entrepreneurs are trying to build a wiki empire on analysis of rap lyrics. Lit crit, yo.

Teresa Wiltz is an award-winning journalist who lives in Washington, DC.
Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

A computer programmer, a Google project manager, and a lawyer, respectively, Tom Lehman ’06, Ilan Zechory ’06, and Mahbod Moghadam ’04 might seem to be unlikely rap impresarios. But their website, Rap Genius, has landed them in the center of hip-hop culture in less than three years. View full image

A couple of years ago, the three of them, Mahbod Moghadam ’04, Ilan Zechory ’06, and Tom Lehman ’06, were sprawled out in an East Village living room, gabbing. Moghadam, on leave from his law firm gig, ostensibly writing a law review article, was explaining lyrics by the rapper Cam’ron to Lehman, a rap newbie. Zechory chimed in. Bit by bit, Moghadam, a lifelong rap enthusiast, broke down the meaning of each lyric, explaining how you can’t take a line at face value, waxing eloquent about metaphor and meaning, until Lehman stopped him.

That, he told his friends, would make a great website. Then Lehman, a computer programmer working for a hedge fund, ran to his room and started coding. That night, he emerged with a prototype for a site he said would be the “Wikipedia of rap”: the ultimate resource for hip-hop fans seeking illumination of obscure references in their favorite songs.

Everyone proclaimed the idea genius. Moghadam thought he had the perfect name for it, a name that was clear and at the same time very Yale (“Decoding rap is a very Yale thing to do,” he says): Rap Exegesis.

“No one is going to tell you immediately that it’s a horrible name,” Lehman says now, laughing.

Horrible name, perhaps, but as it turns out, a great idea.

That was in August 2009. They changed the name to Rap Genius six months later, after one of their editors, Ariel Schneller ’06, staged a one-day strike to lobby for rechristening. And the site began to jell. First, the trio put up a few of their favorite songs, with accompanying explanations, and then their friends put up their favorite songs, and so on, until they’d formed a community of like-minded rapophiles. Within a year, they had some 75 editors contributing, about half of them Yalies.

Today, Rap Genius has 450 editors, including a number of rappers who comment on their own lyrics. And fans have definitely found the site. From April 2011, when the site first started tracking numbers, it grew sixfold in six months, according to Andrew Lipsman, an analyst at the digital media research firm comScore: it logged 6 million US page views and 1.2 million unique US visitors in October of last year. “For a start-up, that’s nice,” says Lipsman. “It’s a landmark anytime you can break a million unique visitors.” By February of this year, the numbers had increased to 9 million page views and 1.6 million unique visitors.

Quitting secure day jobs, following your passion, building the next big thing on the web: the Rap Genius trio’s hubris and entrepreneurial zeal may sound like Silicon Valley, but it’s also part of hip-hop tradition. Rap spawned a generation of savvy businessfolk, young men and women who took to heart the name and philosophy of the rap clothing line FUBU (For Us, By Us). You didn’t have to have great flow and a gift for wordplay to make it in rap. You could produce. Or direct. Or become a star-maker. Or launch a clothing line, or start a record label. Making money became a revolutionary act. As rap producer Damon Dash once said in an interview, “We’ve made it cool to be the CEO in the ’hood. We made it cool to be smart.”

Rap Genius takes “smart cool” to a new level, combining Ivy League textual analysis, the obsessiveness of hip-hop fans, and Internet crowdsourcing. Let’s say you’ve been dying to show off a little and demonstrate your skills at analyzing Childish Gambino’s reference to e.e. cummings in his song “Freaks and Geeks.” You’d log onto the site, find the transcription of the lyrics, highlight the line in question, and start elucidating. Your words would appear in a text box that pops up when anyone clicks on that lyric. Others can join the conversation, challenging or seconding your assertions. Conversely, if you thought you heard Gambino rapping about e. e. cummings, but you weren’t sure, you can go to the site and read the line—along with a contributor’s speculation about whether or not the poet would have appreciated having his name used in a crude pun about ejaculation. (Childish Gambino, also known as Donald Glover, one of the stars of NBC’s Community, is listed as a Rap Genius editor, though he’s yet to contribute anything to the site.)

Still don’t understand a lyric? Tweet the artist for clarification. (Many are happy to Tweet back.) The more you contribute to the site, the more you analyze lyrics, the more “Rap IQ” points you get on the site.

The discourse can be mundane and profane, like this note on a line from Nicki Minaj’s “Right By My Side”: “She saying her [vagina] is so good that it’s always bringing him back.” Or it can be fairly profound, like this analysis of Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “Niggas in Paris”: “This song gains some thematic weight from the very real history of African Americans in Paris and the rest of France, dating back to the early nineteenth century. Paris has historically been a place where black artists could go to get the appreciation denied them in their homeland, and escape vicious racism.”

Those looking for further illumination can check out the site’s newly added “Verified Accounts,” where rappers explain their own lyrics in writing or on video. Click on a highlighted passage and an explanation appears in a pop-up, either text or filmed.

The rapper Nas, for example, contributed a video to explain a line from his 1994 song “Represent”: “Gods I don’t believe in/none of that shit/your facts are backwards.” When he wrote the song, the Five Percent Nation, a mystical offshoot of the Nation of Islam, was having a moment in the black community—influencing a few major rappers—and some Five Percenters thought Nas was talking about them and their gods. But they had nothing to do with it, Nas explains in the video. The line was about atheism, pure and simple.