Design Teardown of the Genius (YC S11) iPhone App

[well]Disclaimer: Rap Genius was in the YC S11 batch along with Ridejoy. I’m friendly with the founders but have no financial stake in this article nor many details of their future plans (besides world domination of course =D)[/well]

On Tuesday, Jan 28, 2014, Rap Genius launched their iPhone app, Genius, a project cofounder Tom Lehman called “the true launch of Rap Genius“.

Having started as an annotation platform for rap lyrics, Rap Genius has since branched into rock, poetry, and even news. Until now, they were only available on the web or via a mobile website. But a native app has been in the works for a LONG time – remember their ad for a “Mobile Czar” way back in October of 2012?

Lehman also says that 50% of Rap Genius traffic is mobile and they only expect it to grow, so Genius is basically represents their first iteration of the future of their product and company. Given how crucial this app is, I thought it’d be valuable to study the app’s design for lessons and ideas.

The Genius Design Teardown

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[Click to enlarge]

Genius takes us through a basic set of explanation screens when you first open the app. The key feature being the reading of annotations, with three secondary features of getting lyrics and annotation of your own music library, playing the actual song of the lyrics you’re reading, and a Shazam-like music recognition feature. You’re then prompted to sign up, sign in or, if you’re reading carefully, use the app without doing either.


I think they’re right to focus on the music annotation as the primary benefit. I assume they are not only trying to satisfy their core user base, but also expand their audience, many of who might not even be aware of their core offering. The other features seem pretty neat though – we’ll see more about them in a second.

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Main Screens

Genius opted to focus on three main screens / tabs:

  • The “Home” screen which allows for exploration, search, and detail view on lyrics/text and their annotation
  • The “Me” screen which just shows your Rap Genius stats (IQ) in each category (you can see that I am far from a hardcore user)
  • The “My Music” screen which allows you to browse your own iTunes library and see what songs you have that are recognized as part of the annotated Rap Genius corpus


It’s interesting that they chose to make the “Me” screen one of the three, even when it has very little content. I assume that either: active users have more data on their Me screen, or they plan to include additional functionality in future versions of the app. The “My Music” feature is very cool and great use of iPhone specific functionality that can only exist in a native app versus mobile web.

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Lyrics + Annotation

This is the core feature of Genius: exploring the community-annotations of popular music lyrics + text. This example is from Lorde’s smash hit “Royals”. You can not only watch the music video, but also stream the entire song from what appears to be a SoundCloud partnership. Honestly not sure how that works, and it’s not available for every song, but it’s pretty neat.

When you click on the yellow text, a screen slides from the right to show the annotation, including images and YouTube videos, and who contributed. You can’t add annotations though, only view and vote up/down on existing annotations.


This experience was well done. The lyrics load pretty fast and I enjoy viewing the annotations as individual screens much more than the pop-up text box that is employed on the web. I’m a little disappointed that they couldn’t release adding annotations in addition to viewing, as this was even mentioned in their original Mobile Czar ad. [1] I can only assume it was much more challenging to implement the addition of creating annotation than viewing. (Could you then edit your annotations? Delete them?)

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Recognizing My Music

Genius offers two ways for jumping into lyrics based on music on your phone. The first is through thumbnails that show up under the search bar, which include the song you’re currently listening to as well as other songs in your collection. Clicking on one takes you to the lyrics for that song. Alternatively you can browse your “My Music on Genius”, which automatically sorts by artist to show you songs with lyrics + annotation on Genius.


I think this is a great feature. I rarely seek out lyrics annotations unless I’m stumped by something very specific, but this feature puts me in discovery mode, thinking about all my favorite songs and whether there are annotations for the lyrics. It makes the app more personal by augmenting your own music collection.

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Click to Enlarge


From the “Home” screen you can search for song on all categories, or specifically on Title, Artist, or Lyrics. In these screenshots I searched for:

  • “But you won’t get a crumb from me” – a line from the the Dr. Dre song “Forgot About Dre”, which was the 4th result on “All” and the 3rd result on “Lyrics”
  • “This is water” – the title of a David Foster Wallace Commencement Speech, which was the 10th result in “All”, the only result in “Title” and not in the top 20 results in “Lyrics” [not pictured]


Search could definitely be improved. I think they are probably biasing towards more popular songs rather than exact matches on lyrics because many songs do have similar words in them. Though it does look like the search algorithm is also matching on very common words like “you” and “is”. In comparison, I think their web search is actually much better (though I haven’t tested these specific phrases)

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Genius Recognition

If you click the waveform icon next to the search bar, you enable the Shazam-like Genius Recognition feature which analyzes sound coming into the microphone and tries to find the song and the lyrics to it. I played a few bars of “Juicy” by Notorious B.I.G and it picked it up pretty nicely.


It wasn’t clear to me why they felt they had to add this feature. I personally listen to almost all my music via a device that tells me the name and artist name of a song. But if Rap Genius has a lot of users who listen to the radio, this might be a super valuable feature (especially if they don’t have Shazam).  This might also be a partial solution to the mediocre search functionality – and spares you the effort of having to type in a ton of lyrics (which can be frustrating on an iPhone, especially in the wintertime!)

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Click to Enlarge

Minor Call Outs

I wanted to point out a few other neat things about the app/RapGenius in general:

  • PYONG – Outside of up/down voting an annotation, the other action you can take is to PYONG a song, which basically pushes into the newsfeed of your followers (there’s a basic social network on RG) so it is a measure of popularity. Their FAQ explains more.
  • Views and Viewing Now – each song shows how many people have viewed those particular lyrics and how many are viewing it at that moment. A measure of real-time popularity.
  • Color Scheme – I really am digging the color scheme that they’ve got for Rap (Orange), Rock (Pink), Poetry (Purple), and News (Blue). This aligns with what they’re already doing on the website and helps link and distinguish the four branches.
  • The Great Gatsby – the corpus of annotation has really spread. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book is well annotated and the Soundcloud audio links to some kind of narrator reading parts of the chapter. Also, I found the Pokedex and AdventureTime on RG. A lot of nerd cred right there.

Final Thoughts

I think overall, the execution on the app is top notch. It is fast. The core features of viewing lyrics and annotations are emphasized and operate smoothly. “Fancier” features like Genius Recognition and My Music –> Lyrics also work well. Surprisingly, there is no “settings” page, though I suppose there are not many settings to fiddle with. There are no unpleasant surprises.

Visually, they’ve kept their white/orange text on black background esthetic, which has always made me feel like I was exploring a totally different part of the internet. The animations are pretty subtle and all the UI elements are pretty standard. I like the jewel icon.

Still, this ultimately is a consumption app, more than a creation app. As most people consume, that’s probably a great start. However, I look forward to watching them release an annotation tool, because that will definitely drive up new annotations, which surely they want and need to continue fueling their growth. I recommend downloading the app for yourself and checking it out!

PS – Live in New York? I just moved to Manhattan and doing a “listening tour” of the NYC tech scene as I plan my next move. Want to grab coffee? Hit me up at @jasonshen


[1]  “Ability to contribute and use the site’s social features. Right now the mobile website is read-only, and STILL it’d be a huge win to provide that experience as a native app”

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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  1. Looking forward to seeing this progress. Really surprised no one took the name ‘Genius’ before them.
    I wonder if it will ultimately replace shazam?

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