The title song of Coolio's second album, Gangsta's Paradise (''Tommy Boy''), may be the bleakest tune ever to top the pop singles chart. With its ghostly choir and lyrics about a gun-toting 23-year-old who kneels in the streetlight wondering if he'll live to see 24, it examines the abyss with journalistic coolness. Much of the rest of Gangsta's Paradise doesn't flinch from these scenarios either but goes one step further by offering ideas and solutions to these problems. Instead of boasting and shooting, Coolio plays the level-headed street philosopher, preaching respect for black women, fatherly responsibilities, and safe sex. In ''The Revolution,'' his concept of radical social action is for African-Americans to walk away from a fight before shooting.
Other hip-hoppers have rapped these kinds of educational sentiments, but few set them to the smooth, fluid grooves crafted by Coolio's various producers. Cuts like ''Too Hot'' (a suave remake of the Kool & the Gang hit) and ''Bright as the Sun'' glide along as if they were recorded on air, yet never lose track of the beat. Coolio's blunt style of rapping isn't nearly as distinctive as his braids, and the album is slowed down by several songs that are little more than reasons for his posse to practice rapping. But continuing in the great tradition of Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder (both of whom are sampled here), Coolio and his crew make the ghetto seem not just a place of desolation, but of hope. B+