A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing

Why is Rakim good? I asked Google this question and here’s what it told me: “Rakim’s peerless skills on the mic…the greatest MC the genre has known…to use Rakim [on a track] is to be hip-hop itself…Repulsed by the listless hip-hop of today? Paid In Full is your antidote.” I asked Ethan P this question and he said it was a right-place right-time thing, Rakim was the first MC to get metaphysical about hip-hop as an art form and it made his reputation. I asked myself this question – and I drew a blank.

Not because I don’t think Rakim’s good. I’ve been listening to Paid In Full a lot, I like it – but I don’t know quite why I like it. Fair enough, you say, you don’t have to analyse everything – just enjoy it! And I’d say certainly, but when I listen to Rakim I don’t feel like there’s anything happening which is beyond explanation, beyond expression. Never being quite able to say why a song moves you is one thing, feeling like you ought to be able to say it is another. To put it starkly – when I listen to Rakim, I feel ignorant.

I get similar mixed feelings when I watch the football – exhilaration, enjoyment, and a sense of being quite out of my depth. I’ve been watching every World Cup game I’ve had the chance to, and commentators in press and box have united in wondering at the excitement and unpredictability of this tournament – I’m with them so far – but at the same time bemoaning the death of “flair”. And here that prickle of ignorance starts up again – flair? What’s that? How do I recognise it? Where do I look? The Brazilians, apparently, still have it, so I watch them.

What I’m looking for in Brazil and listening for in Rakim is something to justify the fuss I’ve heard about them. And I’m looking and listening because I know that if and when I pick it up, if I recognise Rakim’s skills or Ronaldo’s flair, I’ll have learned something. I’ll have acquired expertise. Expertise can be factual, or technical, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I can become an ‘expert’ of sorts on World Cup football by memorising facts – who scored when and where and how. I can become an ‘expert’ on guitar playing by learning to play a guitar and understanding that on paper what Steve Vai does is quite technically difficult and what Steve Jones does is quite easy. But the expertise I’m talking about is different: it’s the ability to recognise when you’re getting something unexpected. A father and son might be watching Brazil play, for instance. From out of nothing, Ronaldo scores – a marvellous goal! For the son, this is the first goal he’s seen – it is magnificent, heart-in-mouth stuff. But is it perhaps more so for the father, the expert, who has seen hundreds of games in which there is no Ronaldo, or no ‘flair’, or no wonderful goal?

The question of what constitutes ‘flair’ in pop music – the question of why Rakim is the greatest MC ever – is a little more negotiable than questions of football. In sport there are results, after all: great players tend to inspire their teams, great teams tend to win things at least sometimes. Results are an imperfect guide, but a guide all the same. Whereas in pop music the question of why Rakim is the greatest MC is always surrounded by the question of whether he is. Even so this question is the crucial one for pop listeners. Do you try and recapture a time when everything sounded good, perhaps by hopping from style to style, or do you try and become expert at recognising brilliance – your own definition of brilliance – within a narrower frame of reference?

But is it really ‘your own definition’ you’re following? I am watching Brazil, trying to understand why they’re good, because other people have told me they are good. So too with Rakim: comments like “the greatest MC the genre has known” can’t be taken on faith by a critic, after all. They’re really a challenge and a promise – listen to Rakim, hear what I hear, and then you’ll agree. ‘Expertise’ means listening with other people’s ears.

We’re moving here from the sphere of the listener (or spectator) to the sphere of the critic – meaning, anyone who takes part in a public conversation about something. To talk about a record, or a football match, is to make your private experience of it suddenly accountable – and, you might think, expertise is vital in such circumstances. I’m more reluctant to talk about hip-hop and football than I am about rock music or comics, because I feel ignorant, unsure of what to value, or what to expect. Gradually I start to get over that feeling, offer an opinion here or there on a football performance, gingerly review a couple of hip-hop CDs. The bluff is successful: the sky does not fall in.

So, if I’m writing about music, do I need expertise or not? It would lend me confidence, that’s for sure. But it also traps me on a kind of competitive pundit ladder – forever triangulating what I think against what other people have said. So-and-so is overrated; so-and-so is underrated; she’s the greatest ever; he’s the worst this year; say I’m wrong, I dare you! Your credibility is determined by how much you can push against other people’s opinions while still staying on-message enough to be believed. “Rakim is the greatest MC the genre has known”; “France are the best team in the world”. There are the experts speaking. But in pop music, of course, there are no upsets, the experts can never be proved wrong. “Ja Rule is a greater MC than Rakim”; “Senegal will beat France”. Two statements that might be met with expert mockery – one can never be tested, one was.

And that untestability makes expertise a poisoned chalice for the critic – to understand why Rakim is the best, to become an expert and then to be recognised as such, your opinions and judgements have to fall mostly within the boundaries drawn by the existing experts. ‘Knowing what one is talking about’ sits awfully close to ‘knowing what is going to be said’: this is why most music criticism, like most football commentary, works as a comforting accompaniment to its subject. So maybe the question for critics shouldn’t be “Is expertise neccessary?”, but “Is expertise avoidable?”