The headquarters of Genius — the popular website and smartphone app that began as a way for users to annotate their favorite rap lyrics — are located in a renovated factory on a quiet residential stretch of 3rd Street in Brooklyn, just a few blocks west of the Gowanus Canal. Though over the years the startup has broadened its purview past the somewhat insular world of hip-hop, allowing members to expound upon any piece of text available on the internet, last month roughly a dozen staffers gathered in one of the building’s sparse, high-ceilinged conference rooms to get back to basics, waxing poetic about the merits and faults of today’s hottest rappers. Twenty-fifteen saw Genius hire away a host of new talent from established media organizations, bolster an already impressive list of artist collaborations, and re-solidify its place as the premier destination for musical knowledge online.
“Genius reminds me of a digital lunch table in high school, where you would just argue with your friends about rap and who was better,” Rob Markman, Genius’s manager of artist relations, tells the Voice. Born and raised just miles away in Flatbush, Markman, a veteran hip-hop journalist, left a senior position at MTV this summer in order to oversee the expansion of Genius’s verified artist program. “It was never about who sold more records. It was never about who was dating who. It was about, ‘Nas is better than Jay Z because Nas said this,’ or ‘Biggie is the best because he said this.’ That’s what it was about. And I feel like Genius is the digital, worldwide version of that.”
On this day, the lunch table is led by Tom Lehman, the company’s co-founder and CEO. He’s kicked back in his chair, the top buttons of his shirt casually undone, as the beat from J. Cole’s 2014 single “No Role Modelz” thumps from a pair of speakers. On January 12, Genius will unveil its new collaboration with Spotify, a potential game-changer called “Behind the Lyrics” that pairs pop-up annotations with select tracks from the streaming service as well as exclusive artist content. (The first big names attached to the feature: Pusha T, Tinashe, and Diplo.) A screen at the front of the room is projecting the tidbits of information about Cole’s life and lyricism as the rapper spits the words “one time for my L.A. sisters, one time for my L.A. ‘hos” over and over again.
The group carefully evaluates the strength of the original, crowdsourced annotations from Genius.com. They weed out information that feels superfluous, critiquing the site’s font and page layout, and applaud notes that link the song’s hook to Project Pat’s 2001 single “Don’t Save Her.” But after Lehman wonders aloud if “No Role Modelz” is perhaps the strongest track of Cole’s career, the room quickly erupts into heated debate. “There’s a lot of ‘ ‘hos’ and ‘bitches’ in this song,” associate editor Anna Oseran points out, then steering the discussion toward issues of misogyny in Cole’s music on the whole.
The conversation changes directions at a frenetic, offhand pace common among true diehard music nerds, and the Genius staff — composed primarily of trendy-looking twenty- and thirtysomethings — tends to speak in its own lexicon. When discussing a song, Lehman will often ask the group what the track’s “meme” is — a term that started off as a joke around the office but has since morphed into a way of addressing the recurrence of trends, tropes, and metaphors in popular music. Nia Long and Aaliyah, two Nineties sex symbols often referenced by Cole and other rappers, have become memes in hip-hop, the staff decides. The way Adele sings the word “Hello,” reminiscent of Lionel Richie’s 1983 hit of the same name, could be considered a meme as well. It’s an approach to music that’s both hyper-analytical and exceedingly geeky, and the conference only comes to a close after an employee in the far corner of the room says cautiously, “I think we may have begun to read too deeply into this…”
“The original vision for the site was to take certain conversations that were happening in real life and translate them somehow to the internet so that other people could participate,” Lehman explains. “To me, the cool thing is just getting people from different backgrounds, different interests, and jumbling it all together, and the creative disruption that comes with that.”
Genius first came into existence as Rap Genius in 2009, a hip-hop-centric passion project Lehman founded with his college buddy Ilan Zechory after graduating from Yale. By 2012, the company had earned a $15 million investment from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and was the fastest-growing startup in the history of Y Combinator, a prestigious Silicon Valley tech incubator. Despite the site’s early successes, deference is hard to come by in the tech world, and the Genius team was often labeled as an unruly gang of smug “brogrammers.” The site’s third co-founder, Mahbod Moghadam, had a penchant for using interviews and social media to tell billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg and Warren Buffett to fellate him and ultimately resigned after Gawker discovered offensive annotations he had made to mass shooter Elliot Rodger’s manifesto in 2014.
“They’re so not bros, it’s the funniest thing,” laughs Elizabeth Milch, a friend of Lehman and Zechory’s from Yale who now serves as Genius’s deputy director of content. A former curriculum developer at a charter school in Brownsville, she first joined the company two years ago to help build Education Genius, an arm of the site dedicated to implementing classroom projects. “I had my frat bro friends in college, and they were not them.”
In 2014, the company did indeed manage to outgrow much of its adolescent reputation, nabbing a $40 million investment from Quicken Loans founder and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. The funding reportedly pushed Genius’s actual valuation to roughly $400 million. Lehman and Zechory, both 32, responded by shortening the company’s name and expanding its scope, envisioning Genius as a way to one day “annotate the world.” The site now hosts annotated texts from Pulitzer Prize–winning authors like Junot Díaz and speeches from presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton. The company also recently launched its Genius Web Annotator, which allows users to add line-by-line context to any page on the internet by installing a Chrome Extension or typing genius.it/ before a site’s URL. When using the Web Annotator, comments magically appear in the margins of New York Times and Washington Post articles, like hidden messages written with invisible ink.
But regardless of the startup’s lofty grown-up goals, rap music will likely remain Genius’s calling card for the foreseeable future. By ramping up collaborations with popular performers and allowing them to add annotations to their own lyrics, the idea is to collapse the distance that persists between artists and fans even in the hyper-connected age of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
“Pretty quickly, [Genius] became about music in all languages and all genres, with special emphasis on rap. And to this day that’s where some of the most exciting energy in the whole community and the whole product is coming from,” explains Zechory, who serves as Genius’s president. “What’s important to us is to make sure that our vision in music and in rap is complete. What we don’t want to do is go run away from music in pursuit of changing the way journalism works before we really accomplish something truly, truly great.
“This has been the dream for a long time,” he adds. “How do you literally get the artist interacting with the fans right on a song?”
With a little help from their friends, more or less. More often than not, Markman or another member of Genius’s artist relations team will interview a singer, rapper, or songwriter about a lyric and add the verified annotations accordingly. But ultimately Genius hopes to get musicians using the site on their own, logging in to their profiles, and responding directly to fans without the need for a middleman. Artists like Pusha T and Rivers Cuomo have already begun using the site consistently, and younger performers like Chance the Rapper were practically raised on Genius, visiting the site as their go-to destination for lyrics before making it big. Still, getting musicians to use Genius both frequently and natively may prove to be a difficult task.
“I think it’s a challenge getting the artist to view this as a tool that they can come back to and keep using,” explains Brendan Frederick, Genius’s director of content. Frederick joined the company in October after parting ways with Complex Media, a more traditional music and pop-culture news outlet, and says Genius will soon launch a new homepage featuring more conventional interviews, artist profiles, videos, and infographics. “We get great stuff out of [the artist] the first time, but we definitely want to encourage more of a dialogue with the fans.”
Bringing Markman onboard as artist relations manager is one way of ensuring close, ongoing ties with today’s biggest acts. As a journalist, Markman made a point of giving young performers a platform before the rest of the industry was able to catch on, forming a bond with Kendrick Lamar back when the MC was still a scrawny teenager in Compton peddling mixtapes under the name K-Dot. He met Mac Miller while he was still in high school and knows the rapper’s mother. That’s why last year, when publications were clamoring to speak with Lamar about his most recent album, To Pimp a Butterfly, Markman was able to land a lengthy, in-depth interview with the artist for MTV, in which the pair analyzed the new LP’s densely packed verses.
“There’s nothing greater than working with an artist for the first time and seeing things take off,” Markman says. Though his roots are in hip-hop, spending years steadily bringing the underground to center stage, since joining Genius he’s been working to build partnerships with everyone from soul singer Leon Bridges to country hero Blake Shelton to the legendary Bob Dylan. “I realized that [Kendrick Lamar interview] was a Genius interview. I was doing Genius interviews before I even got to Genius. When I came here, it just made sense. It put me in a place that was closer to the music in its purest form.”
While Genius is attempting to alter the way the world absorbs musical knowledge through technology, the company’s success is not based solely on product innovation. Genius operates differently from much of the tech world — first forgoing Silicon Valley for Williamsburg, then forgoing Williamsburg for Gowanus — and Lehman and Zechory both firmly believe that a company’s triumphs are directly proportional to the strength of its interpersonal relationships. Once a week the pair attends couples therapy in Brooklyn in order to keep their egos in check. And though they’ve certainly had their spats since forming the company, they consider themselves best friends first and business partners second. Neither blushes when Lehman states earnestly that he’s grown to love Zechory over the years.
“There have been hundreds of times where we’ve had conflicts,” Zechory says. “We’ve fought; we’ve misunderstood each other; we’ve assumed the worst. There’s been so much that could have jeopardized our friendship. But you have to have a certain at-bottom honesty with each other. If you don’t have that, you’re fucked.”
The founders’ openness with each other has spread throughout the company, especially when it comes to new hires. Markman recalls trying to greet Lehman with a pound on his first day at Genius last year, only to be met with an awkward bear hug. “He literally welcomed me with open arms,” he remembers. “I love him to death.” Later, Markman’s son, a precocious ten-year-old who picks up vocabulary by playing Minecraft online, would note that the company’s Gowanus offices had “a very open-air design that inspires creativity.”
Ultimately, if Genius wants to annotate the world, as it so often claims, one day rivaling Wikipedia as the internet’s central hub for crowdsourced knowledge, victory will hinge not only on the millions of visitors it’s amassed on the Web, or the close relationships it’s been able to forge with artists, but the team of fewer than fifty staff members it’s steadily built in Brooklyn.
“Over and over again, you saw that the reason companies succeeded or failed was not so much the strength of the idea, or how smart you are, or how good your engineering was at the outset,” Zechory says of his time at Y Combinator. “A lot of times it was just the strength of the character and relationships of the people.”
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.