Brow Beat

Rick Rubin Is Annotating Dozens of Songs on Genius, and His Notes Are Great

Rick Rubin.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Genius, the song lyric annotation startup formerly known as Rap Genius, has already generated a lot of new buzz in 2015: In addition to being the subject of a lengthy profile in New York magazine, the site recently picked up The New Yorker’s pop music critic, Sasha Frere-Jones, as its new executive editor. But for many music fans, the site’s biggest selling point to date has been its growing roster of celebrity and artist annotators—the latest being music producer and Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin. Since Jan. 31, Rubin has annotated dozens of songs from both artists he’s worked with—Kanye West, Jay Z, the Beastie Boys, and Johnny Cash—to those he’s simply a fan of, providing rare insight into their creative processes.

On Kanye West and Paul McCartney’s “Only One”:

Kanye is a combination of careful and spontaneous. He’ll find a theme he likes quickly, and then live with that for a while, not necessarily filling in all the words until later. At the end, he’ll fill in all the gaps.

He was upset at one point when I said that he wrote the lyrics quickly. He’s right—they percolate for a long time, he gets the phrasing into his brain, lives with it, and then lines come up. It definitely starts from this very spontaneous thing.

On “Only One,” a lot of those lyrics came out free-form, ad-libs. The song is essentially live, written in the moment. Some of the words were later improved, but most of it was stream of consciousness, just Kanye being in the moment.  

On Jay Z’s “99 Problems”:

Jay came into my studio every day for like a week, I kept trying things that I thought would sound like a Jay record, and after like three or four days he said, “I want to do something more like one of your old records, Beastie Boys-style.” Originally that’s not what I was thinking for him, but he requested that vibe, and we just started working on some tracks. …

Jay didn’t have any lyrics in place. I played him the track and he loved it. I told him this idea that Chris Rock had about “99 Problems.” He said “There’s this Ice-T song called ‘99 Problems’ and the hook is really great, and there’s probably an interesting song to be made with that hook, so talk to Jay about that.”

… [The second verse, about being pulled over by the police] is the one verse that he wrote down. It’s the first time I ever saw him write anything down. He read it off his laptop. He wrote it the night of.

On Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”:

There were a lot of songs that he needed to be convinc[ed] about. Eventually, he trusted me enough that if I felt strongly about something, he’d do it. I would send him compilations of CDs of songs to listen to, and I remember that on several compilations in a row, “Hurt” was the first song. There’s just something about it. I imagined him saying those words being very powerful.

What I came to realize about that whole Johnny Cash experience was that he was a great storyteller. The song didn’t matter—all that mattered were the words. All that mattered was if the character of Johnny Cash—the mythical Johnny Cash, the man in black—would say those words. If that’s what you would want to hear him talking about, then that would be a good song to do.

So it was never about like melody, it was just about if the lyrics were right.  

Rubin has also shared some funny anecdotes, saying, for example., that the Beastie Boys’ MCA hated Slayer despite having Kerry King play on “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” He also says that if Johnny Cash were still around, he might ask him to try covering Hozier’s “Take Me to Church.” All of his notes—more than 60 and counting—are worth a read at his Genius page.