What's That Rhyme Mean? Just Ask The Rapper

A couple weeks ago, lyrics site Rap Genius started giving artists “Verified” accounts to explain their songs. But hey, rappers, fair warning: this may be a trap.

Rap Genius, the online guide to rap lyrics where you can find out what rap lyrics mean "critique rap lyrics as poetry", added Twitter-style "verified accounts" about two weeks ago. I asked one of the site's founders, Mahbod Moghadam, why he thought this was a good idea:

I can't even imagine the high, to tell these people, "you're full of shit."

In other words: Rappers will love to call their fans out for getting meanings wrong.

Rap Genius was founded because Moghadam and his friends "wanted to hang out with Cam'ron." (This hasn't happened yet, but Cam'ron's mom follows Moghadam on Twitter, so he estimates he's about 30% there), and it's since grown into something much bigger — a sort of Wikipedia for lyrics.

Verified accounts, though, are a pure extension of that founding mission. They're as close as you can get to hanging out with a rapper without actually getting backstage. The guys at Rap Genius have become friends with a lot of artists; this is just a way to share the wealth. It's pure fan service. But it's also a clever, and maybe accidental, restatement of one of art's most important questions: Who owns meaning?

What Rap Genius is literally doing here is asking artists to answer a more straightforward question, and one that has animated music fans since the beginning of fandom: "Can you explain that?" It's a trap more than it is an honest inquiry. If an artist just spells everything out, he's a meaning-destroying jerk. If he prevaricates — if he answers a question about lyrics with lyrics — he sounds pretentious. Silence is an option worth considering unless you know exactly you're doing.

Nas was the first rapper to get a verified account. And Nas, as it happens, does know exactly what he's doing. His first explanations are a masterclass in talking about meaning without damaging it. Nas is with Barthes; that is to say, he seems to believe that once you create art, it's not yours to define. Once you've set it free it belongs to your audience, not you.

Verified Nas is just a fan of his fans, basically, and with good reason. Rap Genius today is a shining example of what happens when you leave interpretation to the crowd— you can get lost there for hours even if you don't care about rap. (It's also not afraid of a little mission creep: Here's a deeply strange and sort of wonderful post from noted venture capitalist Ben Horowitz, also verified, in which he explains when to sell your startup in terms of hip hop lyrics.)

Where other Rap Genius users have given meaning to his words, Nas leaves it alone as if it's none of his business. Where they've recited trivia, he acts impressed: On a line from "Get Down" about a guy named Pistol Pete, he says, "Damn never thought anyone would get this one — I thought everybody would guess it’s the basketball player." He adds information where it's missing but doesn't dismiss anything. Take this verse:

She passed me the indigo, but the imbecile
Should have never tippy-toed, thought my eyes were closed
Opening the hotel room door to let her goons in

Nas adds, "This story is based on a beautiful latino girl I met (but the story itself is made up)." He's just offering a stronger foundation — you can build on it whatever you want.

I didn't have to ask Moghadam to relate what RapGenius is doing to literary theory. "If you read a lot of criticism," he says, "the good books are the ones that try to make something dope out of [the subject]." The ones that just explicate aren't really doing anything. Likewise, he says, "anyone who's charismatic enough to make it to highest levels of rap is going to be playful about it."

To assume that you can't literally explain a song, though, is to assume that it's a purely a piece of fiction. Sometimes songs aren't much more than stories, and sometimes that's why they work. How fully you think fact needs to be separated from art depends on what kind of artist you are.

When Moghadam asked Earl Sweatshirt, one of the youngest members of the youngest rap supergroup, about getting a verified account, he got a different kind of response. "Earl was like, 'all your explanations are wrong.'" If he got an account, it would be to tell his fans to shut up. (Earl still hasn't opened one, but the RG guys aren't giving up. They've already got Hodgy Beats and Mike G, and Vince Staples too.)

Rap Genius is a neutral party here, sitting somewhere between Nas and Earl, between Barthes and his critics. Verified accounts aren't about spelling things out — "we never meant for the site to 'explain' rap," says Moghadam — nor are they about protecting an identity. They about a building a second stage. Whether artists use it to lecture or to put on a show is up to them. Either way, it's ok: we don't have to listen if we don't want to.

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