How Jael McCants went from Urban Outfitters to having Eminem translate his lyrics for the Internet.
If you've even haphazardly thumbed through a copy of Vanity Fair on the plane in the last, say, three or four years, you know first-hand that the realities of running and working at a tech and media start-up are often mythologized beyond actual recognition. But one nugget of truth remains: all of those big risks, more often than not, equal big rewards. And usually, an unprecedented rise (in this case, two years) to job titles that come with some pretty serious perks—like, say, hearing original Rihanna demos played off of her producer's iPhone. In this case, we're talking about Jael McCants, whose rise to heading up Content Partnerships and Label Relations at Genius is nothing short of tell-all-worthy. Still scratching your head on this one? You might better know Genius as Rap Genius, the little lyric annotation site that could—Eminem, Nas, Kanye West and Wu-Tang are fans. As McCants more or less put it, it's now out to annotate the entire damn Internet. Here, she talks about burn-out, the most surreal moments in her career so far and that time she (sorta, kinda) partied with Beyoncé.
ON HOW IT ALL BEGAN AT URBAN OUTFITTERS (& KIND OF FELL INTO HER LAP):
"I graduated from Oberlin in 2012 and moved to New York to see if I could make being a dancer in the city work. At that time, I nannied for a family and worked at Urban Outfitters, where I was the only employee who smiled. The music they played in-store was alright, but the playlists would loop over and over during a shift. This was particularly painful during the holiday season — I hate Christmas music unless it’s Mariah Carey, to which I’d be down to listen on loop. On lucky days, “Pyramids” by Frank Ocean would play twice in a shift, and that track is nine minutes and 53 seconds of gold.
This was my grind for a while until my friend Ezra Glenn, who worked at Genius—then known as Rap Genius—told me he was looking for someone to fill a position on the operations team. I guess I kind of stumbled into the music and tech scene. Good thing I listen to music! I had no idea this job would become such a huge part of my life."
ON WHAT IT'S REALLY LIKE TO WORK AT A START-UP:
"I’ve worked at Genius for just over two years, which, at a startup is basically a thousand—a lot has changed in this time. The Genius project began in 2009 with Rap Genius, a website for collaboratively breaking down hip-hop lyrics through line-by-line dissections, and annotations added and edited by anyone in the world. It launched a full year before Jay Z released his book Decoded, so this notion of going deeper into hip-hop lyrics and hearing from the artists themselves on their references was definitely in the air. Over the years, Genius expanded into all genres of music, and eventually it was clear that any text—whether it was Shakespeare, a legal document, a political speech, or even a pharmaceutical bottle—can be annotated. The whole Internet is annotatable! That’s why we recently launched the Genius Web Annotator, so users can add a new dimension of conversation to all corners of the Internet. Evolving from Rap Genius to Genius seemed like a huge deal, but really it was the natural progression. Last year, we officially changed the name because the project grew beyond hip-hop, though it will always be a huge part of our story and what we do.
Because startups are truly living organisms, my role at Genius also transformed quite a bit. I started on the operations side of the company, spearheading the Genius events team. My coworkers called me the CFO (“Chief Fun Officer”), which was a cool joke for my business cards and even got referenced in articles about us. Now I’m on the music division of the company managing content partnerships. I help drive opportunities for artist collaboration, map out project-specific content strategy and programming, and build playlists. Not sure if anything I learned in college prepared me for this work, but like Kanye says in School Spirit #2, '...when I die, buddy, you know what’s going to keep me warm? That’s right, those degrees.'"
ON HANGING OUT WITH BEYONCÉ AT NYFW (KINDA):
"Events are huge in this industry and sometimes I get my name conveniently placed on guest lists. Sometimes Beyoncé shows up—OK, this only happened one time, but it happened. I saw Beyoncé, in real life, at a St. Heron Fashion Week event. And yes, I freaked out."
ON WHAT AN AVERAGE DAY ACTUALLY LOOKS LIKE FOR HER:
"Usually, I wake up at 7 A.M. on the dot and go running. 75% of the time I am listening to Beyoncé, Rihanna, or Nicki Minaj, because their music guarantees a powerful start. Once I get to work, I make a list of what I have to do. I go to meetings, send tons of emails, create some Google Docs, and drink too much seltzer. I listen to music throughout the day and try to listen to albums in full.
Outside of work, I’m a chiller. I spend a lot of time with my siblings. We’re a family of performers—a lively squad, moving in choreography and communicating in harmony. Honestly, if they didn’t live here, NYC would have already turned me into a puddle of slime. We’re from Wisconsin, so naturally, huge Packer fans. Packer games are my favorite part of the week, except when we lose.
I first start yawning at, like, 10 P.M., but I can rally, especially if the dance floor is involved. Let’s get it!"
"'What do you propose?' This is a common question at Genius. If you think something is bad, it’s not productive to just say the thing is bad. Instead, propose something better. This might seem obvious, but it’s a super helpful guideline for collaboration. I'll be proposing better things forever."
ON THE MOST SURREAL MOMENTS IN HER CAREER SO FAR:
"One slightly more day-to-day perk is collaborating with Genius-verified artists and watching them interact with their most passionate fans on our site. Producers and songwriters have the best stories. One standout has got to be The-Dream, one of my favorite artists of all time—a singer/songwriter/producer and overall incredible talent. The-Dream is responsible for writing a bunch of massive tracks like “Single Ladies”, “Holy Grail” and “Umbrella”. Through his Genius annotations, he shared stories of the evolution of each track and what it’s like to collaborate with these superstars. After talking about “Holy Grail,” he even played us a secret version of the track from his iPhone with him on lead vocals. I love J. Timberlake, but The-Dream killed it on the original recording! “Umbrella” also has annotations from The-Dream and Tricky Stewart, the producer, dropping multiple layers of knowledge on the track. So cool.
A few weeks back, Alessia Cara came by Genius HQ to break down 'Here'. Super impressed with the Genius community’s discussion about her songs, she scrolled through the page and co signed some fan annotations before dropping a few of her own. We’re bringing the focus to the music, creating a unique space for conversation between artists and their fans right on top of the songs themselves. In this way, the Internet has brought us closer to music than ever.
Another highlight was meeting Vince Staples, who came through to dissect his album Summertime ‘06. He is wildly smart. He’s a perfect artist for Genius because while he loves to leave room for people to interpret his music in their own way, you know if you’ve met with Vince that he has an opinion and it’s probably right. His annotations are always mind-blowing and further contextualize his message. He’s also hilarious and went on a tangent about Fetty Wap, who he respects 100%. He even compared Fetty to Santa Claus and Luther Vandross. Vince Staples is the truth."
"There’s no secret formula to working on the Internet, except maybe Twitter. It’s important for me to be up on how music is performing—I like to know what tracks are on the radio, what’s trending on streaming services, the most Shazam-ed tracks, who is leading the Billboard charts. I read The FADER, Pitchfork, Complex, and Hot New Hip Hop, or I’m deep in Rihanna’s Instagram feed “reading” and pretending to be her friend. To be honest, she would love me."
"Everyone makes fun of me for how much green juice I drink. A true rip-off, but I gotta treat my body kind. I am trying to walk around Brooklyn with green juice less frequently. Shout out to Juice Press, though. You guys do it right. Orbit gum. Boomerang for Gmail. It’s weaponry for always being up on your e-mail follow-ups. Gmail’s “Undo Send” option. Spotify!"
"Explore every opportunity that is presented to you because you never know: it might be you that they’re looking for, and it might be that opportunity that helps you grow.
Also, if you’re ever on the job and consistently not listening to music, something is probably wrong. Don’t let the industry distract you from actually listening to music."