Coolio has died. The rapper, born Artis Leon Ivey, Jr., first broke into the music mainstream in 1994 with his debut album It Takes A Thief—and then became an overnight global superstar just a few months later, with the release of the single “Gangsta’s Paradise,” one of the most successful rap songs of all time. Per the New York Times, his death was confirmed earlier tonight by his manager. Coolio was 59.
Born in Pennsylvania, but an early Compton transplant, Coolio came up in the West Coast rap scene in Los Angeles; an early single, “Whatcha Gonna Do?” pulled some attention, although he ultimately signed on to perform with WC And The Maad Circle on their debut album, Ain’t A Damn Thing Changed. A few years later, though, he signed as a solo artist with Tommy Boy Records, releasing It Takes A Thief in 1994. Led off by hit single “Fantastic Voyage”—which took both its name, and its funk groove, from the 1981 Lakeside song of the same name—Thief checked many of the boxes that would define Coolio’s career: Heavy use of samples and interpolation of ’70s and ’80s music, and a lyrical style that was both more thoughtful, and less self-serious, than the prototypical West Coast rap of the era. The album brought in both strong reviews and good sales, charting well, and going platinum that same year.
And then, well: “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Sampling in abundance from both Stevie Wonder and the Book Of Psalms, the song was originally attached to the Michelle Pfeiffer teaching drama Dangerous Minds. (The Pfeiffer-starring music video was an endlessly repeated MTV favorite, considerably raising the profile of director Antoine Fuqua in the process.) Taking the strings and chorus from Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise,” Coolio and co-writers L.V. and Doug Rasheed blew them out into an irresistible blend of Gothic and gangsta, all tied together by lush production and Coolio’s harsh, mournful rhymes.
It’s difficult, in 2022 to express how thoroughly dominant “Gangsta’s Paradise” was in 1995. The song was everywhere, and was surprisingly resistant to wearing out its welcome; its particular blend of catchy and meaningful made it an omnipresent radio staple. (The fact that it’s one of the few major rap songs of the era to be entirely clean—reportedly a condition from Wonder, who didn’t want the normally foul-mouthed Coolio swearing over his music—probably didn’t hurt.) Originally intended as a single, the song quickly had Coolio’s second album attached to it (with the latter taking the former’s name, as well.) The single literally charted from Australia to Zimbabwe, with numerous victories in between. It went triple platinum in both the U.S. and the U.K.; it won Coolio a Grammy. Its parody (by “Weird Al” Yankovic, who had some minor drama with Coolio over a miscommunication about parody permission) charted on the Billboard Hot 100. It was a phenomenon.
It was also the sort of success that sets a performer up for almost inevitable failure, if by comparison, if nothing else. When 1997's My Soul merely went platinum, instead of multi-platinum, Coolio was swiftly dropped from Tommy Boy. And although he’d talk in later interviews about the way “Paradise” “overshadowed” any subsequent musical work, Coolio seemed to settle, a few years later, with some comfort into the life of an artist with a single career-defining track. (Calling him a one-hit wonder criminally undervalues any number of excellent, successful songs.) He didn’t stop making music—releasing 5 more albums from 2001 through 2007—but he also broadened his profile considerably, often by leaning into the comedic side that had appeared on even his earliest records.
Reality shows, cooking shows, contributing a theme song to Kenan & Kel, writing a cookbook, playing The Gathering Of The Juggalos, appearing as himself (or a wax statue of himself) on TV shows: If there was a joke to Coolio’s latter day career, it was one he appeared to be in on. He continued to perform regularly up through this year.
Coolio was found, unresponsive, earlier today. No cause of death has been reported.