Rap Genius, the lyric-annotation site, has announced a move toward its founders’ original vision of annotating everything on the Internet with the announcement earlier this week of News Genius, designed to break down breaking news stories. A big question, of course, is whether a site founded on deciphering rap lyrics can make the transition to an authoritative annotation source for serious news topics.
Rap Genius, which has been described as the Wikipedia of rap, not only supports user-submitted translations of rap lyrics, but gives verified accounts from actual musicians (like Mac Miller, 50 Cent and Kendrick Lamar) the ability to log in and contribute to the discussion. Recently the New York-based startup, founded in 2009 by Tom Lehman, Ilan Zechory and Mahbod Moghadam, got a big boost in the form of a $15 million dollar investment round from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.
News Genius was announced Wednesday as the three founders took the stage at a TechCrunch Disrupt NY event, where they claimed they basically came up with the idea on the spot and use language such as “ballersourced” to describe what they do.
More seriously, Marc Andreessen, of Andreessen Horowitz, said in a blog post on the site, “I often wonder how the Internet would have turned out differently if users had been able to annotate everything -- to add new layers of knowledge to all knowledge, on and on, ad infinitum.”
But is user-sourced information necessarily a good idea? Since this statement by the Rap Genius investor was written (back in October 2012), the public has watched as efforts by viral news site Reddit’s users to identify the suspects of the Marathon Monday bombings in Boston resulted in a chaotic, misguided witch hunt. The efforts by the Reddit community (which started with good intentions) spiraled out of control, and resulted in hurtful slander and personal information being spread online towards an innocent Boston family. Reddit has since apologized for the incident on its company blog.
And the stories and explanations that currently appear on Rap Genius lack the professionalism and standards that one would expect from a reliable news source. An annnotation from a line of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” offers the crass explanation “Do you want to get out of here? hint hint.” Other annotations, like on a Noisey story by Kitty on the recent Danny Brown on-stage sex act ripped and posted to the site, serve opinions (“The Detroit State of Mind documentary is really good”) that might crush the credibility of a news story otherwise posted elsewhere. (It also initially did not include a link back to the original article, although it was added later.) However, News Genius would, presumably, adhere to a higher standard.

In fact, many of the criticisms of the legitimacy of the crowdsourced news explanations sound very similar to the criticisms by scholars and academics leveled towards Wikipedia in its early days. While Wikipedia is hardly a rock-solid source today, it does employ a rigid system of quality control and staff of fact checkers to maintain a reasonable level of integrity.

Yes, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves here; as of today, the entity only exists as a Twitter account. But it’s pretty clear that the gap between hip-hop lyrics, however profound, and life-affecting news topics is a big one that the Rap Genius founders will have to work hard to bridge.