By now it's unwritten rap law that every gangsta du jour will offer up an apologia about how his first-person accounts of murder and mayhem are just street journalism; never you mind if they happen to sound like good soldier-of-fortune fun. But Coolio's chilly ''Gangsta's Paradise'' tells its tale so morosely that you actually buy it as a cautionary one. Wrapping up his bum rap by muttering that his young life ''is outta luck.fool'' (sounding self-loathing, but definitely pissed off at you, too), Coolio's bitter cub reporter is a loser. And it isn't just ''paradise'' lost but imminently, perhaps his own life, too.
So how did this grim piece of work end up the single of the yearmoving 2.2 million units (along with another couple million Dangerous Minds soundtracks), staying in the top five for four months, and propelling the movie to better box office than anyone would have imagined possible? Chalk it up to Coolio's moxie at shifting expertly between drollery and despondency. The comic parts of his persona, as well as his pointedly pro-women and pro-fatherhood anthems, build up enough goodwill that when he actually elects to get scary on your ass as in the ''Paradise'' video, where he blisteringly reprimands Michelle Pfeiffer on the facts of street life there's no writing him off as just another one-dimensional hood-lum.
''If you live in the ghetto I come from, an element of life you dealt with every day was that you lived in the gangsta's paradise. You didn't have to be one, but you had to walk down the same streets,'' says the 32-year-old Compton, Calif., native and father of sixnoting that the ''If you can't beat 'em, join 'em'' axiom usually prevailed. Coolio himself first joined, then beat, that scene. Though he's moved to the more suburban Ladera Heights with his fiancee, he conceived his alternately randy and rueful new Paradise album as an inner-city tour that would take pains to hit all the stops: ''I highlighted some of the good points of the ghetto and some of the badand all the in-betweens. But it's a little more positive than It Takes a Thief [his first album]. You know, it was different when it was just my kids, but now it's other people's children looking up to me, too, so I have to be careful.''
A rapper who has a sense of responsibility to go with his street cred? That's...cool.