Earlier this week, an annotation appeared on the lyrics (and, now, news) annotation site Rap Genius from an unusual user. Rather than the usual handle like “ry-bizzle” or “evilKANYEVEL,” this one was simple and to the point: “ACLU.” It was indeed the veritable civil rights organization, who had come to contribute an annotation to the Kanye West song “New Slaves.” In response to the line “Meanwhile the DEA teamed up with CCA,” the ACLU wrote a 170-word primer on the prison-industrial complex in the US. “The explosion in the size of our prison population over the last 40 years rakes in billions of dollars a year for CCA and other for-profit prison companies,” they wrote, very seriously.
As heartening as it is to see the ACLU being aware of both Kanye and Rap Genius as venues for spreading their (important!) message, it’s also a demonstration of everything that’s awful about Rap Genius. Knowing what Kanye’s referencing in that one line tells you almost nothing about the meaning of “New Slaves” as a song. For one thing, concentrating on the CCA line lends undue support to the idea that Kanye “went political” on Yeezus. But he’s always been political, and the line here is a continuation of his practice of getting one good, solid public policy point in on each album, like with “314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago” on “Murder to Excellence” off 2011’s Watch the Throne. For another, its literalism gets around the weird, complicated (and sexist, sigh) stuff going on here. Kanye’s not just railing against private prisons; he’s playing the fool, or the trickster, positioning himself as someone who knows that luxury goods are political poison but buys them anyway because it’s fun. That’s why, when he does get political, Kanye’s so effective: he’s not hurling condemnation at everyone else, he’s including himself in the problem. Focusing on just that one line makes it seem far more self-righteous and straightforward than what Kanye’s doing in the song as a whole.
There’s nothing wrong, I think, with the general idea of explaining rap. Rap fans got mad about Jay-Z’s Decoded, in which he combined autobiography with lyrical exegesis, and Yale’s The Anthology of Rap, which (mis-) printed rap lyrics with accompanying commentary. But that always seemed like a sour attempt to limit rap’s audience to some sort of “true fan,” policing the boundaries of the genre. As someone from northern New York State, I frequently did not know what the hip-hoppers were talking about, and while I’ve steadily built up my knowledge and understanding, I was only able to do that because of people explaining rap songs. David Cho’s explanation of a line in “Empire State of Mind” has always stood out to me for getting at the meaning of the line, putting it in the context of other songs, and pointing the audience’s misperception, letting you know what Jay means while providing numerous keys to how his language works.
More of this sort of thing would be great. Fine, too, would be linking slang terms in rap lyrics to their definitive Urban Dictionary entries, just like how in Shakespeare anthologies anachronistic words and phrases are footnoted to explain their contextual meaning: “wherefore” meaning “why,” for instance. When the balcony scene (“O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” etc. etc.) is annotated on Rap Genius — they have a companion site called “Poetry Genius” now, T.S. Eliot’s ghost must be overjoyed — the entirety of the “wherefore” line is annotated as follows: “Juliet wants to be with Romeo, even if that means being disowned. Considering her family is very well to do, such a statement would have been scandalous and disrespectful toward her parents.” Sure! Well, kinda.
The problem with Rap Genius is its presupposition that language is logical. The site’s purpose is to break down a piece of writing into its constituent parts, determine the meaning of each individual part, and then add all those meanings up to get the meaning of the whole. That’s not how art works. But the site has achieved great success through that approach. SongMeanings is a decade-old site, and a pretty good one, that focuses on discussing the meaning of songs as whole pieces; unlike Rap Genius, it has not received $15 million in seed money. It’s not surprising that a site focused on making language into a kind of math has done well on the web, a thing built by (and heavily used by) programmers, people who do use language in a logical way every day to write code. It does not, however, do the lyrics any favors. Rap Genius’ system encourages each line to be annotated only once, creating the idea of a “definitive” meaning. But since when is meaning ever definitive?