KANYE WEST (w/ Jay Z) / “Diamonds”
The title was always 'Diamonds From Sierra Leone' but the label didn't understand what I was doing so they did their own thing. We touch on the conflict - diamonds in the blood, diamonds out in Africa - in the video. We're really going for it. —Kanye WestThe reality of ice is cold. Especially coming from the only continent upon which the sun shines at a perpendicular angle every day of the year. (That’s Old Skool Afrocentric trivia which may or may not be true, but sounds hip.) The sun may or may not straight-up shine on Africa, but for sure people die delivering diamonds from the soil of Africa. Wars are fought over diamonds. The continent bleeds; it is rich in resources that the rich crave and since there’s mostly nothing but poor people there, those folk are expendable. Does it matter that someone may have died so that we can bling? Much to his credit Kanye West is raising this issue. Much to his discredit there seems to be more at work than what we are shown. First, there are two versions. Kanye’s first version as a solo piece and the second version as a duo with Jay Z. Second, there is evidence that Kanye’s song may be ah… (I’m trying to be objectively charitable with this), may be a remake of a song someone else did. Both versions are included in the jukebox. The solo version focuses on Kanye delving into his personal tantrums—read the lyrics here (scroll down to the bottom). As in much of his writing, there are some very, very clever rhymes as he talks about himself (sometimes in the third person). When I first heard the verses, even though I recognized that they were meant to be rationalizations and justifications for some of his more obnoxious behavior over the last year or so, I still had to give Kanye his propers and acknowledge that he was being self-consciously self-critical, a trait that is almost unheard of for 21st century rappers. But then I heard about the video and his plan to make it a direct expose on so-called ‘conflict diamonds.’ You can see the Diamonds video here. You can read about conflict diamonds here. And I said, whoa, this is going to get deep—and it wasn’t just me feeling a little vertiginous. Check out Davy D here (and be sure to check out the comments at the end). Davy D is one of the most highly respected hip hop radio personalities. Now hit the re-wind button, there’s more. I heard the remake featuring Jay Z. I hope Mtume expounds for a bit on a comparison/contrast of Kanye’s verse and Jay Z’s verse because I don’t have the insight to delve too deeply into all the references and allusions to friendships/fallouts past and present. Suffice it to say, a number of folk were really, really feeling what Jay Z had to say. What I was feeling was Kanye digging deeper on the “bling-in-the-ghetto” / ”conflict-on-the-continent” diamond connection. Moreover, ya boy Kanye straight-up acknowledges that he is part of the problem, saying not just that he is addicted to flossing, but that his addiction fosters death and terror (children maimed, hands cut off) in Sierre Leone. This 17-year-old lost both hands to rebels' machetes. Waterloo camp, Sierra Leone, 1998. UNICEF/HQ96-0566/Giacomo Pirozzi Whether he is serious and ultimately willing to give up blinging is a question, but even if he isn’t, he has successfully done more to publicly and popularly raise questions around the issue of conflict diamonds than has anyone I can think of. Part of the reason for Kanye’s success at raising consciousness around conflict diamonds is because he has a gigantic soapbox as a result of his popularity, but another and more important part of the reason is that he has taken the time to educate himself on the issue and had the moral fortitude to stand up and be counted, even if that standing up means he’s pointing a finger at his own ass (or rather at his neck, earlobes, pinkies and wherever else he sports rocks). I don’t know what motivated my man to take this step but I do know there is more than meets the eye to Kanye’s conscious denouncing of conflict diamonds. You ever heard of Lupe Fiasco? Click here for an interview with Lupe. Well, it seems that Lupe is from Chicago and has a song called “Conflict Diamonds.” Now before you jump to conclusions and think you know what I’m going to say next, listen to Lupe’s song (it is also in the jukebox). Those are roughly the same beats and exactly the same Shirley Bassey sample from a James Bond movie theme that she recorded beaucoup years ago. Kanye has given shouts out to Lupe. I believe (but I don’t know) Kanye produced the Lupe song. Some believe that Kanye 'stole' the conflict diamonds concept and ran with it, but that theory doesn’t explain Lupe’s beats and the Shirley Bassey sample. We may never know what went down, when and how, but one thing for sure, Lupe’s song and Kanye’s second version are working in the same mine shaft. What may have happened is that Kanye gave the beats to Lupe and both of them worked on their first versions around the same time, and then (possibly) when Kanye heard what Lupe did, Kanye cut a second version with Jay Z, which reductively meant that there would never be any conflict between Lupe and Kanye about who had the better verse because most heads would nod to Jay Z. But that’s just another Negro Conspiracy Theory I’m offering. Now listen to this interview with Kanye phoned in to a BBC radio show in London. Note that it’s about fifteen minutes long and is full of interesting insights and asides, some of which bear directly on the diamonds issue, others of which are interesting just because Americans are overly-interested in the personal lives of celebrities. Now you’ve heard the two Kanye versions and the Lupe version; you’ve (hopefully) heard the Kanye radio interview and read some of the background information including the song lyrics—did you check all the comments as well?—and, finally, you’ve seen the video shot in Prague. I know, I know: why Prague? I don’t know. It’s possibly a gigantic conceit. Why not shoot in Africa somewhere? One reason may be that it was planned before Kanye did the second version and therefore the introspective first version did not require an African setting, or maybe… hell, who knows? And the contradictions don’t stop there. The biggest issue, from a commercial standpoint is that while drama is generally good for record sales, as Jay-Z, Fifty Cent, Nas and many, many others have demonstrated: drama sells, nonetheless, the fact that Late Registration (which is the working title of Kanye’s upcoming release) is, ah, really, really late is costing the record company money. How? Why? Well, it’s simple: the longer Kanye takes to deliver, the more of the music is going to get out and be circulated via the internet. You don’t believe me? Well, as some Louisiana Lagniappe, check this funny-as-hell cut with Jamie Foxx called “Gold Digga,” which is alleged to be the forthcoming second single from a June-scheduled album whose release date has been pushed back to August. “Gold Digga” is also in the jukebox—the box is hot this week: three diamonds and a gold digga! I don’t remember any rap song attracting this much of my attention. Like him or loathe him, Kanye is raising the bar. Whether or not he believes what he’s saying, the fact that he’s saying what he’s saying means that millions are hearing it. On this issue of conflict diamonds, Kanye is making a tremendous contribution. Tremendous. —Kalamu ya Salaam PS—please read our conversation on Lauryn Hill and Kanye West. I feel a major rant coming on Before I get started (and I feel a major, major rant coming on—don’t say I didn’t warn you), let me address the easy issues first. First, Kanye didn’t steal the song. Kanye put out the original version of “Diamonds” (apparently titled “Diamonds Are Forever”) where Kanye is basically (and I’m going to put this bluntly: if your kids are reading this, I apologize in advance; if you are a kid reading this, prepare your little mind for an incoming dirty word) riding his own dick and bragging about how wonderful and fantastic his record label is. (Because that’s exactly what the world needs: one more rap record where the MC is on his own dick.) Lupe Fiasco (who really should come up with a less stupid-sounding stage name) heard the record and (to Lupe’s credit) decided to freestyle some Sierra Leone stuff over Kanye’s beat. Kanye then heard Lupe’s freestyle and Kanye (to Kanye’s credit) was able to momentarily subjugate his interstellar-sized ego long enough to compare and contrast the two versions, thereafter realizing that maybe the world didn’t need one more song featuring a rapper riding his own dick after all, even if said rapper was He Himself, Kanye the Great. Maybe, just maybe, what the world needed was a song with actual subject matter. Maybe. And so, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” AKA “Diamonds” (Remix) or whatever it’s being called was born. But because Kanye (or Jay-Z, or someone else with the Roc or someone else altogether) wanted to hedge their bets instead of just putting out the record and letting the chips fall, they stuck Jay-Z on there, practically ensuring record sales because of Jay’s legion of fans who will buy anything the supposedly-retired Greatest Rapper Alive raps on. (BTW, what’s with the heavy breathing thing? Every time I hear Jay-Z lately he sounds like he just ran up a flight of stairs. If you’re gonna put your studio on the third floor shouldn’t you at least have an elevator? And, while I’m on the subject of Jay-Z, what’s with the now-obligatory Jesus references? This song, he’s walking on water. On some other record I heard and promptly forgot the title of, he was performing miracles or something. Is Jay-Z so awesomely, incredibly, stupendously fabulous that nothing short of a comparison to the Messiah Himself will do Jay justice? Or am I reading to much into this?) OK, on to issue number two. Kalamu asked, why did Kanye shoot the video in Prague. "I'm really into architecture and art, period," West told MTV recently. "You get the sculptures, the cathedrals, the stone floors. It gives you a timeless feel, and we're gonna shoot it in black and white. That look represented the music in ‘Diamonds.’" In other words—and granted, I’m reading between the lines here—Kanye was going for a ‘European’ feel. I’m not going to waste a comment on that. Just know: whatever I would have said if I would’ve taken the time to say it would have been long-winded, rant-like and extraordinarily negative in both tone and substance. Let your imagination run free. Now that those easy issues are out of the way, let me ask the one question that comes to mind after listening to/reading all about Kanye and Lupe and “Diamonds” etc. Is this bullshit really what hip-hop has come to? First, the track is shit. (I’m sorry, I know I’m supposed to be a sensible, reasonable, ‘objective’ writer and all that, but the truth is, I don’t dislike the music I dislike, I hate it. Sue me.) Let me be more specific: as a hip-hop record, the track is shit. It’s cinematic, bloated, overly catchy and didactic to a fault. (Or is ‘didactic to a fault’ redundant?) In other words, it’s crap. From a pop perspective, maybe it’s the greatest thing since smokable cocaine – I really don’t know because my ability to successfully associate ‘greatness’ and ‘popness’ is non-existent. I do know my hip-hop though, and, trust me, the track is weak. As for the lyrics, I’m conflicted. Kalamu is correct: He Himself, Kanye The Great is clever. Very clever. Actually, Kanye is too clever – and therein lies the problem. (Well, part of it, at least.) I saw Chris Rock’s latest show and it was funny. I laughed my ass off. A pleasant time was had by all, yours truly included, then I went home, turned on my iTunes and did what I really like to do, which is listen to music. My point is, I don’t listen to music for jokes. If I want jokes, I listen to comedians. When I listen to musicians—and MCs absolutely, most definitely and certainly are musicians—I want music. There’s a thin line between ‘cleverness’ and ‘smugness’ and, judging from Kanye’s thorough and repeated trampling of said line, Kanye wouldn’t recognize the line even if Jacob himself plated the line in platinum and encrusted it in diamonds, ‘conflict’ or clean. Moving right along. Hasn’t the whole ‘I Know It’s Wrong, But It Feels So Right So I’m Going To Keep On Doing It Anyway’ bit been done already? I mean really, really, really been done already? Like, to death. Like, ad infinitum. Like, just to give a completely random and totally unrelated example, on at least half of the songs from College Dropout (Kanye’s first album)? On the “Diamonds” remix, Kanye goes on and on about kids without arms and the blood dripping from his ice and blah blah blah and blah some more, and that’s all good, I’m glad he’s shining light on some real fucked up shit that’s being done on the Mother Continent. That’s great. But hey, Mr. He Himself, Kanye the Great. I have a really complex and extraordinarily deep conclusion for you: TAKE OFF THE FUCKING DIAMONDS. Again, am I missing something? Why should I waste four-minutes of my time listening to you pontificate in rhyme about the horror that is the international diamond trade if you’re going to keep on wearing the fucking things?! Oh, and another thing. What’s with the ‘we’ and ‘you’ thing? I’ve had it with that. Rappers are always talking about ‘we’ this and ‘you’ that. Who are they talking about? Not me, that’s for sure. I never went to Jacob with $20,000 (or $50,000 or whatever it was) either before or after I bought a house. I don’t dress up to go to the grocery store. (And, judging from the people I see every week in the checkout line at my Sav-A-Center, the one on Bullard in New Orleans East, ain’t nobody else dressing up to go to the grocery store either.) I never spent a nickel on platinum or ‘Rolexeses’ or ‘Lexuses’ or any of that other shit, mainly because I happen to be an actual normal human being who still considers it a minor achievement to get both my rent and light bill paid in the same month. (The previous few sentences are for those who’ve heard Kanye’s first album. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, run right out and buy it so you can be like, “Oh! So that’s what that dude on BoL was talking about” and, of course, so Kanye can replace all his ‘conflict’ diamonds with clean ones.) The point I’m trying to make is (if I have a point at all, and I’m not sure that I do) I can’t relate. At all. Not even almost. Not even slightly. Maybe, instead of putting “Diamonds” out there in general release, Kanye instead should’ve just Blackberryed it to all his rich rapper and movie star pals. (And please do notice Jamie Foxx flossing his ass off in the picture with Kanye. Am I the only one who gets a queasy feeling every time they see some retard wearing the average working persons’ yearly salary around their neck like God-damn $1.99 Mardi Gras beads?) Maybe rich rappers and movie stars and athletes and their accountants and spouses and Baby Mamas and Daddies and hangers-on actually give a shit and/or can relate to the quandary of do I or do I not spend my money on ‘conflict’ diamonds. I don’t/can’t. I’m still trying to pay off my $799 eMac and still wondering if and when I’m ever going to get that rebate check back from Epson for the piece-of-junk printer I didn’t even want in the first place but had to buy because it was ‘bundled’ into the price of the stupid computer. And I’m supposed to be worried about some rich dude’s angst about whether or not someone died for his $200,000 Jesus piece? Give me a break. Kanye, let me let you in on a little secret. It’s a cold, cold capitalist, racist, sexist, ageist world. If you spend $200,000 on anything, the chances are very, very good that someone poor and/or young and/or of color and/or female was in some way shitted on so that you could do so. If it really does bother you, quit the conspicuous and ridiculous consumption. If it really doesn’t bother you, call up Jacob and order a matching quarter-million-dollar Holy Mary piece to go with the one you’ve already got of Her Little Boy. The truth is, once we’ve spent our $15 bucks to have our ear drums massaged by the Greatness that is you, it’s your money. Do what you want with it. But don’t ask us to spend another $15 just to hear you whine about the dumb-ass shit you did with the last $15. $200,000 for a fucking necklace?! That’s some dumb-ass shit to do even if nobody got so much as a paper cut because of it. And just to anticipate the inevitable questions. Do I have a bad attitude? Yes, I do. Have I been sipping the Hater-ade? Yes, I have. Am I bitter? Yes, I am. To paraphrase my main man Flavor Flav: I got a right to be bitter – these assholes killed the music I love. Rant over. It’s past my bedtime. —Mtume ya Salaam P.S. “Gold Digga” is not funny. It’s the same sexist bullshit it was 15 years ago when EPMD did it first. See EPMD – Business As Usual (1990) – Song #8 That’s my boyyyyeeee!!!! I laughed all the way through your rant. I knows you. When you rants like that it be some funny but you be so deep, unimpressed by the bling, you be looking at the ass around whose neck the stuff be slinged, and you be, like, pointing out, hey the dick-ass got diamonds on!!!! Right on for the right on of keeping it real. I’m glad you acknowledged that Kanye is clever and gladder that you pointed out that he’s using that cleverness to justify wearing his bling. What I was a bit uncomfortable about, you put your foot up and drop kicked back to EMPD where he stole some of his stuff (and before any of our readers ask, I will ask: if Kanye stole it, is it still his/theirs?). Mtume, I really like that you do that Tonto shit and asked, Kanye what you mean 'we,' ‘cause after all it’s the Long Ranger’s television show—yeah, Kanye make money off of all of that! It’s the old, nouveau-rich bullshit, playing the race card to cover their class collaborations. Now BOTH (them and 'the white man') be fleecing the working class. OK, it’s early in the morning and I’m about to post this shit and all I can say is: Mtume, you a whip. Thanks for putting my enthusiasm in check. Good night, sleep tight. Don’t let the bling-bling bite. Peaceeeeee. (…in the village, but there’s war in the world). —Kalamu ya Salaam PS—Kanye, we hear from our cousins over in England that you read the haters on the internet, so if you’re reading this: we will be glad to post any response (clean/or down-dirty) that you might want to spit. PPS—One last question: would Jesus wear diamonds? Three quick things First, I'm not saying that Kanye 'stole' anything from EPMD. What I am saying is, years ago EPMD put out a hit record named "Gold Digger" about, what else, money-hungry females. It's not as much stealing as it's just some unoriginal shit for Kanye to rehash after all this time, particularly given that Kanye is, as we all know, a musical genius. (And particularly given that Ludacris just released a song of the same name last year.) And besides, it's not that clever a concept anyway. "I'm rich, so all these hyper-sexed women with giant butts are trying to take my money." How deep. The retort is always the same: but it's true! Maybe it is true. Maybe it isn't. And maybe I just don't give a shit. Keep your sexual problems to yourself, Mr. Rich Rapper Guy. I'm not your therapist. Second, in your response, you may have lost those who don't know the joke. So for those who don't know, the joke is as follows. One fine afternoon, Tonto and the Lone Ranger were out Lone Rangering when they suddenly found themselves surrounded by an armed band of hostile Indians. The Lone Ranger turned to his faithful sidekick Tonto and said, "Well, Tonto. It looks like they have us surrounded. What are we going to do?" To which Tonto replied, "What do you mean 'we,' white man?" Third, to answer your last question: No. —Mtume ya Salaam
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