The original version of “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” (which I believe was just called “Diamonds”) is fine enough. I love the orchestral sweep of the production, thanks in part to the presence of Jon Brion, and thanks in part to the healthy sample of Shirley Bassey’s Bond theme “Diamonds Are Forever”. Kanye’s got that HDTV mindset, but is also still very much a lieutenant at this point.
The remix retains the music, adds new verses that take the lyrical focus away from Kanye himself towards a more socially conscious view of the plight of Africans in the diamond trade, and concludes with one of the best, most focused and most passionate verses of Jay-Z’s career.
Keep in mind that Jay was still “retired” (in the Michael Jordan circa ‘93 sense) when “Diamonds” dropped. Actually, the fact that there hadn’t been any new Jay material in almost two years might be the reason that his 16 was so hot. Jay was incredibly prolific at the outset of his career, and was and is undeniably talented. But the rate at which he turned out records (and guest verses on other peoples’ records) meant that there was a fairly sharp lack of consistency from track to track. I would say that having time off sharpened his focus. Then again, I’ve also listened to the entire Kingdom Come album, which would blow that particular theory to smithereens.
Jay and Damon Dash were separating as business partners by this time, and Jay used his verse as a warning shot towards anyone thinking Jay himself was falling off. With one line, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!”, Jay was able to put the naysayers on notice. Now I’ll grant you-the promises he made to his artist roster at the time didn’t exactly stick. But, it’s not like any of us had a crystal ball to predict that he wasn’t able to make Young Gunz or Freeway superstars or that he’d be able to rebuild Foxy Brown’s career. Shit was dope then and it’s still dope now.