Coolio achieved a rare thing in the music world: maintaining his underground credibility while playing the pop game for all the exposure it can give him. His braids-to-the-sky hairdo became a trademark as familiar as Michael Jackson’s mono-glove, and every one of his hits relied on a single formula, a wise rap riding on the back of a ’70s sample. His past, however, lies in Compton’s mean streets: ten months in juvenile detention for his connection with a murder a friend committed during a mugging and several years of crack addiction. Though Coolio (born Artis Ivey) had been rapping since he was fifteen, it wasn’t until he cleaned himself up (quitting drugs to become a firefighter) that his career began. He was 30 — well over the hill in hip-hop time — when he had his first hit.
Coolio made his recorded debut (braids down) on WC and the MAAD Circle’s first album, Ain’t a Damn Thang Changed. With the patronage of Ice Cube, the band (whose leader, WC, was once in the rap duo Low Profile with DJ Aladdin) raps tag-team style over mid-tempo drum-machine beats, funky basslines and the occasional live instrument and sample. (Tears for Fears’ “Shout” mysteriously pops up in “Caught n a Fad.”) The album’s subject is real-life tales of the ghetto, from the abusive, alcoholic, cheating father (“Fuck My Daddy”) to the monetary advantages of robbing and dealing over straight jobs (“You Don’t Work, U Don’t Eat”). The best song, “Dress Code,” talks about prejudice toward not just skin color but also formality of attire.
Coolio’s chosen topic on the MAAD Circle album is his time in prison and how he’s not going back; on his solo debut, It Takes a Thief, he amplifies on that desire in songs that are mostly reflections on the past. In “Fantastic Voyage,” its chorus taken from the 1980 Lakeside song of the same name, Coolio name-checks two WC and the MAAD Circle songs and imagines a dream neighborhood where “Everybody got a stack, and it ain’t no crack/And it really don’t matter if you’re white or black.” For the better part of the album, Coolio portrays himself as a ghetto cartoon, offering songs that are half-joke, half-real life: “Mama, I’m in Love wit a Gangsta” and “Smokin’ Stix.” “I Remember,” with a hook from Al Green’s “Tomorrow’s Dream,” most skillfully fuses fact and whimsy, as Coolio and friends reminisce on pre-pubescent days of poverty and innocence like a comedy team trying to deliver a moral without breaking the light-hearted mood.
Coolio continues his ghetto morality play on Gangsta’s Paradise, rhyming with the laid-back voice of experience. The excellent title track, taken from the film Dangerous Minds, became the biggest single of 1995. In the verses, Coolio sings from the point of view of a headstrong, trigger-happy 23-year-old; the choruses, half Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” and half the soulful vocals of a singer known as L.V. (which stands for “large variety”), pull back to weep over the fate of a good rat caught in an inhumane maze. Much of the album, which is slower and more R&B-oriented than It Takes a Thief, seems to have been thrown together to capitalize on the success of “Gangsta’s Paradise.” In “Too Hot,” Coolio delivers a safe-sex message over smooth, lackluster R&B. And in “For My Sistas,” he reverses the position of last album’s “Ugly Bitches” to pay respect to the female record-buying demographic.
After several years spent getting out of its contract with Priority Records, WC and the MAAD Circle returned with Curb Servin’. Taking a tip from Coolio (who performs on one song, “In a Twist”), the band finds fuel for its songs in R&B classics. At the same time, it sticks to its tough, streetwise rhymes. The combination is unwieldy and the results are uninventive.