Anatomy of a Verse: Jay-Z on “Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix)”

On “Big Brother”, a cut off his 2007 stadium-rock influenced epic Graduation that serves as both a both a piece of gratitude and warning shot towards Jay-Z, Kanye West says, “On that Diamonds remix, I swore I spazzed, then my big brother came through and kicked my ass”. Kanye was right. The original “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” served as the lead single to West’s sophomore effort Late Registration. It was instantly impactful. Flipping a sample of perhaps the most well-known James Bond theme, Kanye did more than just build anticipation for an already highly anticipated album. Kanye made a song about young black men craving the same material things that often lead to other young men being killed overseas. Jay-Z jumped on a remix, and that remix basically became the song. The “remix” is what ultimately made the album’s tracklist, while the original was a bonus cut. When people talk about Kanye’s “Diamonds” today, a decade later, they’re most likely referring to the remix. It’s an “Ignition (Remix)” situation.

I’ve been of the belief that the Kanye West/Jay-Z dynamic has become a mentee passes the mentor one, like Drake/Lil Wayne. Not to take anything away from Jay’s legacy as one of the most significant artists ever; but since 2003, I don’t really see how you can argue for Jay being more relevant than Kanye. This can easily be seen through most of the work Kanye and Jay have done together. “Run This Town”, “Monster”, all of Watch the Throne. It’s hard for me to find a song that Jay and Kanye have both rapped on where I’d say the former showed the latter up. The “Diamonds Remix” is an exception. It’s unlike Kanye to admit that he’s anything less than the greatest person to ever do anything, but even he couldn’t deny Jay got him on this one.

Jay’s contributions here aren’t as political as Kanye’s. He raps about his musical family tree, his legacy, and his money, mostly. But the amount of coolness and confidence Jay squeezes into this verse is remarkable, even by Jay’s very cool and confident standards.

Jay comes on at 2:26.

Words: 256

Syllables: 335 (1.31 syllables per word)

Time: 1:13 (4.60 syllables per second)

Bars: 29

End Rhymes: 11 (2.64 bars per end rhyme)

Multi-Syllabic rhyme schemes?: Yes

Internal rhyme schemes?: Yes

“Bad” Words: 1 (0.39% of all words)

Slang/Reference Explanation:

“Ye” = A nickname for Kanye West.

“Rock of Gibraltar” = An enormous piece of limestone that rest at the entrance of the Mediterranean Sea.

“Kanyeez” = Another nickname for Kanye West.

“Freeway” = A rapper formerly affiliated with Jay-Z.

“Foxy” = Short for Foxy Brown, a female vocalist formerly affiliated with Jay-Z.

“Teairra Mari” = A female vocalist formerly affiliated with Jay-Z.

“Peedi” = Short for Peedi Crakk, a rapper formerly affiliated with Jay-Z.

“Bleek” = Short for Memphis Bleek, a rapper affiliated with Jay-Z.

“The Dynasty” = A nickname for Jay-Z’s Def Jam imprint (Roc-A-Fella) and those affiliated with it.

“Shirley Bassey” = The female vocalist who sang the original “Diamonds are Forever”, which this song heavily samples.

“Louis Vuitton Don” = Another nickname for Kanye West which came about due to his obsession with the brand.

Kanye closes a verse by asking “What’s up with you and Jay man? Are y’all okay man?” and then it’s Jay…

Yup, I got it from here ‘Ye, damn

Jay and Kanye have often had conversations with each other on track. The chemistry is clear and the above line allows Jay’s appearance to feel natural (color coding indicates rhyme schemes, repetition of sounds, etc.).

The chain remains, the gang is intact

The name is mine, I’ll take blame for that

The pressure’s on but guess who ain’t gon crack?

(laughs) Pardon me, I had to laugh at that

I’ll admit I generally hate rappers rhyming the same word twice at the end of bars so close to each other, but the “Pardon me I had to laugh at that” is a sidebar here. It’s neat, almost like Jay is commenting on his own lyrics within those lyrics. The first two lines here work perfectly. 9-syllables, a similar internal scheme for both. A nice little “chain gang” double entendre here, though it’s weird listening to this in the present because this gang is no longer intact (more on this later).

How could you falter?

When you’re the Rock of Gibraltar?

I had to get off the boat so I could walk on water

This little “stanza” develops from a 5-syllable bar to an 8-syllable bar to a 14-syllable bar. It’s structurally impressive. Jay has always had the ability to pause mid-sentence and switch up pacing mid-sentence in order to make lyrics that look a little off on paper flow perfectly. He also compared himself to the ROCK OF GIBRALTAR. One of the strangest, dopest references I’ve heard. That’s followed by a Biblical reference to Peter, a very astute and unique way of Jay describing his confidence (in Peter’s sake, his faith, or lack thereof).

This ain’t no tall order, this is nothin’ to me

Difficult takes a day, impossible takes a week

I do this in my sleep

I sold kilos of coke so, I’m guessin’ I can sell CD’s

I’m not a businessman I’m a business, man

Let me handle my business, damn

The “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man” is one of Jay’s most famous lines. It’s a great line. What’s funny is that, given the simplicity of the wordplay/homophone utilized, it’s surprising no rapper thought of it before Jay did. “I sold kilos of coke so I’m guessin’ I can sell CD’s” is also an all-timer, though I must admit I’m part of the crowd that find Jay’s continued boasts about how he used to sell drugs to be quite annoying (he still does this). I don’t doubt Jay’s street smarts/pyrex wherewithal/etc, it’s just that he’s been a rap superstar for two decades now. Chill out, Jay.

A couple of subtle tricks by Jay here that aren’t necessarily internal rhymes, but function as such. The “cult” in “difficult” is pronounced so to repeat he sound of “tall” in the line before it. Then he puts emphasis on the “lo” in “kilos”. This, combined with Jay pausing after “so”, creates and internal rhyme which allows that rather long line to fit in the rest of the verse.

Kanyeez you got me, Freeway then Foxy

YG’s, Teairra Mari, Peddi watch me

Jay is shouting out some of his old comrades. This verse is kept from being prophetic by the fact that, with the exception of Kanye, all of these folks have completely disappeared from the mainstream (not lasting forever like the Dynasty sign).

Bleek could be one hit away his whole career

As long as I’m alive he’s a millionaire

And even if I die he’s in my will somewhere

So he could just kick back and chill somewhere

Oh yeah, he don’t even have to write rhymes

The Dynasty, like my money, last 3 lifetimes

Does anyone remember Memphis Bleek? Before Jay-Z pretended to give two shits about J. Cole, Bleek, who’s from the Bronx, not Memphis, was one of the artists Jay tried to put on. He was “successful”. Bleek put out four albums under the Get Low/Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam imprint, all of which moved 500K+ units. But aside from some scattered guest appearances and a thrown together mixtape, Bleek has been silent since 2005. Maybe he really did take Jay up on the “kick back and chill somewhere” offer. Jay & Bleek are noted childhood friends, and this verse is an example of Jay always there for Bleek on wax despite Bleek never hitting it nearly as big as Jay (to be frank, Bleek isn’t very good, and the Roc-A-Fella budget that allowed him to employ A-list producers and guests is what kept him relevant). We see this all the time now in hip-hop, perhaps the most recent example being that Monty dude Fetty Wap is always rolling with.

Cool fact, the first ever credited appearance of Rihanna on a record came on the 2005 Memphis Bleek song “The One”.

Shirley Bassey’s in the rear

Saying exactly what I’ve been saying practically my whole career

A diamond is forever, I’ve been minin’ this forever

Now the Louis Vuitton Don’s timin’ couldn’t be better

Nice of Jay to shoutout Shirley Bassey, who recorded the version of the track that this HEAVILY samples. My question, did Jay subtly admit here that he desperately needed Kanye to reinvigorate himself as an artist and the entire label? Kanye became easily the biggest star Jay ever “backed”, strange given that Jay was always hesitant to introduce Kanye as a vocalist. Some of the earliest recordings we have of Kanye are backing vocals on old Jay-Z hooks (the songs Ye produced, obviously). Maybe Jay is passing the proverbial torch on wax here. It’s hard for even the biggest Jay-Z stan to argue any of his work post-The Black Album measures up to his work prior to it. There have been some great guest spots here and there (like this one), but you just get the feeling that Jay hasn’t been all that interested in rap for a while now. I don’t blame him. He has his beak dipped into a number of ventures that lead to bigger paychecks than spending endless hours in the studio. I will never complain about anyone getting their money, it’s just the Jay-Z fan in me dreams of an alternate universe where he actually did retire after The Black Album.

There’s some great internal rhyme here. And like the section before this one, Jay manipulates his cadence so to make himself capable of pulling off an otherwise awkward line (here it’s “saying exactly…”).

People lined up to see the Titanic sinkin’

Instead we rose up from the ash like a phoenix

If you’re waitin’ for the end of the Dynasty sign

It would seem like forever is a mighty long time

(I’m young, bitches)

Good night!

A slightly lazy conclusion here. “sinkin’” and “phoenix” don’t really work. It’s not just that they technically don’t rhyme, it’s that Jay fails to make his usual vocal acrobats in order to make them rhyme. But the actual lyrical content is of high quality and Jay leaves us with the message the entire verse was built around, that Roc-A-Fella isn’t going anywhere thanks to his newfound energy and the stardom of Kanye. That wouldn’t prove to be entirely true, but whatevs.

Still debating which verse to look at next when I find the time. I’m thinking maybe:

Pusha T on “Nosetalgia”

Inspectah Deck on Gang Starr’s “Above the Clouds”

Andre 3000 on “Da Art of Storytellin’ (Pt. 1)”

Big K.R.I.T. on A$AP Rocky’s “1 Train”

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