Like the man himself -- who's been rapping for close to 20 years
now -- Coolio's new knockout, "My Soul," straddles the two schools: old and new. The dichotomy works backward and frontward. On one hand, the lowrider bass hum is nouveau, West Coast, gangsta-ass shit all the way, but the lyrics are tongue-twisting, mind-tripping wonders that hearken back to the days of verbal street battles. On the other hand, those lyrics reflect life today, while the backup '70s funk recalls a different, maybe more hopeful, time. Ultimately, "My Soul" is Coolio himself, a 34-year-old in a 20-year-old's game, a grown man who understands what things are like now, but remembers what things were like before.
As he's known to be, Coolio's generous with "My Soul's" sample helpings, which for the most part he rerecords with live musicians. He lifts a big chunk of the BarKay's "She Talks to Me With Her Body" for
the bouncy "One Mo'," uses Grace Jones' "Slave to the Rhythm" to spice up "Ooh La La" and even turns to Glen Frye's "Smuggler's Blues" for a backdrop to the philosophical narrative of "Nature of the Business." Coolio's often criticized for the extent to which he uses other people's work in his songs. But it's a matter of quality, not quantity, and Coolio has an ear for using just the right musical spark, jamming with samples as if they were other instruments, but never letting himself be carried by them.
In other words, Coolio's a song crafter extraordinaire. His flair for turning a hook into a musical noose that ropes you in and keeps you humming way after the music's over puts him on the same shelf as maestros like Burt Bacharach, and Gamble and Huff. The only difference is that, like hip-hop's Carole King, Coolio has decided to keep his goodies for himself.
Coming of age as he did in the '70s, Coolio's greatest respect is for complex rapping. His guests on "My Soul" -- the 40 Thevz, Ras Kass, Malika -- all turn in performances that defy the laws of physics (see especially "Hit 'Em" and "Can I Get Down One Time"). Coolio himself seems always to be trying to see how many words he can fit in a line or on a beat, lyrically bouncing between comedy ("Ooh La La," "2 Minutes and 21 Seconds of Funk") and tragedy ("Knight Fall," "Nature of the Business").
That difference between seriousness and fun is another dichotomy Coolio has worked since his entrance into the spotlight. His now-ubiquitous persona in the media is multilayered, much more so than rappers are usually granted. "Fantastic Voyage" showed him as a carefree regular Joe who dreams of being the master of ceremonies at the ultimate beach party, while in "Gangsta's Paradise" he played the wearily wise hood. In the "My Soul" videos, he's both the bumbling casanova ("Ooh La La") and the righteous pundit ("C U When U Get There"). If "My Soul" is Coolio's party, then he's both the youngster hitting the punch and getting wild on the dance floor, and one of the older folks going a little slower, watching from the sides in his wisdom, and coming in on the older numbers.