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Recently, I bought "Watch The Throne," Jay-Z and Kanye West's collaborative album. Since Jay-Z's debut album "Reasonable Doubt," he's undergone a metamorphosis: from a young spitfire to a mature statesman, reigning over the hip-hop community lyrically and industrially. Meanwhile, all 15 of his albums to date have gone platinum. His keen business sense, quiet charisma, and almost imperturbable demeanor have kept his solo career afloat for more than fifteen years.
Jay-Z "broke out" at 25, at about the same age many lifetime educators start our careers. Most of us will never accumulate a net worth of $450 million, but we can meet ambitious goals as teachers. And I think we can learn a great deal from this hip-hop figure:
Jay-Z's debut album was lauded by fans for its texture and complexity. The album analyzed urban life in the 1980s and 90s and incorporated deft and engaging storytelling. It also kept him from reaching a broader base of listeners. So Jay-Z shifted things for his next album—he simplified the language but kept the context deep.
What's the take-away for us as educators? We want all students to fulfill high academic expectations, but we must balance this with the need to meet our students at their level. I often hear educators refer to this as an "either/or" situation—but we can provide the "and." We can speak in language our students will understand without sacrificing the meaning, context, and depth of what we teach.
It's worth noting that Jay-Z was accused of 'selling out' when he simplified the language in which he articulated his experiences. However, ultimately, he reached many more listeners, and his real fans respected his growth. As teachers, we may experience some pushback from peers who are unwilling to meet their students halfway, but if we engage students in meaningful learning, helping them to master critical concepts, we will have done our jobs well.
As in any other subculture, rap aficionados argue about which rapper has produced the most impressive output. Jay-Z has cited Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., and 2Pac as "greats"—and his career is often compared with theirs. The Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac met untimely deaths in 1997, so comparisons are limited. But Nas' "Illmatic" is considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. Few hip-hop fans believe any of Jay-Z's albums are of the same caliber, yet Jay-Z has released a consistent stream of critically acclaimed albums—while Nas' career hasn't flourished.
As teachers, we cannot expect to perform perfectly for every period of every day of the school year: Such unrealistic hopes can lead only to utter disappointment and early burnout. Unfortunately, perfectionistic tendencies can often be intensified by the pressures of high-stakes accountability systems. That's why we must gird ourselves for the long haul, developing mindsets, skills, and innovations that will enable us to sustain our careers.
Jay-Z has made plenty of mistakes. When he challenged the most prominent MCs in Queens (Nas and Mobb Deep) with his song "Takeover," he fed fans who were hungry for feuds—and initiated an ugly back-and-forth with Nas. In other instances, Jay-Z tried too hard to land in the pop category ("Sunshine"), let others outshine him on his own songs (Eminem in "Renegade"), and responded to haters who only sought to boost their own album sales (Jim Jones). These missteps didn’t end Jay-Z’s career—he learned from them.
All teachers make mistakes. At the end of the day, we have regrets. We didn't listen to a student when ...