Genius is an online media knowledge base founded on October 2009 by Mahbod Moghadam, Tom Lehman, and Ilan Zechory. 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 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.
Genius first started as a hip-hop focused site and was originally named Rap Genius. It was created in October 2009 by founders Mahbod Moghadam, Tom Lehman, and Ilan Zechory, who 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, Moghadam, a 2008 graduate of Stanford Law School and a first year employee at Dewey and LeBoeuf who was on a paid sabbatical leave, decided to pursue the idea full-time. Lehman, the programmer of the site, and Zechory soon joined him and brought the idea to fruition. Originally named Rap Exegesis, the site changed its name in December 2009 to Rap Genius because "exegesis" was difficult for users to spell.
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.
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. Some believe the penalty may have benefited Rap Genius, as the result of news coverage, providing incoming links from online magazines and a consequent rise in people searching for Rap Genius via Google.
In an effort to extend the concept into other genres of media works, Rap Genius launched several new channels 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. At one point, rapper Kanye West, a fan of the site, submitted a mock up of a redesign to Ben Horowitz, an investor in the site. The redesign was not used although Lehman was impressed, telling Business Insider that future redesigns could use elements from it.
In May 2014, Rap Genius co-founder Mahbod Moghadam resigned after annotating the manifesto of Isla Vista spree killer Elliot Rodger. Many of Moghadm's annotations were labeled as being insensitive, particularly his comment "MY GUESS: his sister is smokin hot".
However, Moghadam had already reduced his involvement in the company to a part-time role 3 months before his resignation, due to complications from his surgery for meningioma, a benign brain tumor.
In August 2014, Russell Farhang was hired as Director of Operations.
On July 12, 2014, reflecting its recent expansions and growth into a platform, Rap Genius re-launched as simply Genius. Speaking about the changes, the co-founders explained that most internet users fail to "dive into" stories they find in greater deal, 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.
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.
On January 28, 2014, Genius released an app for the iPhone, 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 1,000 years, when the aliens land, ‘Rap Genius’ will literally mean ‘that dope iPhone app’. This app has long been our users’ most-requested feature, and we’re pumped to finally deliver.
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.
Genius offers verified accounts to established artists where they annotate, moderate and correct their own lyrics. Such annotations are highlighted in green, rather than the usual grey. The Queensbridge rapper Nas was the first rapper to get a verified Rap Genius account where he has annotated his own lyrics and commented on the lyrics of other rappers he admires. RZA, GZA, Ghostface Killah and Raekwon, members of the American hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan, also have verified accounts on Genius.
In late 2012, novelist Bacchus Paine became the first current release author to voluntarily annotate part of her own work, a semi-fictional mixture of philosophy and pornography, on the site, including supplementing the narrative with photos taken at events like Folsom Street Fair featured in the novel.
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.
In January 2016, the U.S. government began using Genius to provide annotations for its online postings of President Barack Obama's State of the Union addresses.
Spotify includes the ability to display lyrics from Genius for some of its tracks.