I was driving in Venice Beach, CA when I heard this terrific song by Coolio from his underrated 1994 debut It Takes A Thief. When I saw the album for 50 cents at the record store, I thought "Hey, I have 50 cents" and quickly snagged it.
Coolio is from Compton—a neighborhood, which during another California drive, I learned has a serious gang problem (that's for another post though). Like other West Coast rappers, a lot of Coolio's lyrics describe gang related issues in South-Central Los Angeles. It goes without saying that the glorification of gang life has made the whole rap genre notoriously controversial. Even when the most successful rappers received recognition in the mid to late 80s, they were often snubbed by radio stations (sometimes justifiably) and also by the Grammy Awards. Even when the Grammys acknowledged rap's growing popularity, as they did with the addition of the "Best Rap Performance" category in 1989, the award presentation was not even televised. Fun Fact: the award went to arguably the least controversial popular rap song of the time, "Parent's Just Don't Understand" by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince.
So where does Coolio fit in to this? Coolio is slightly different than his SCLA predecessors like Ice-T, NWA and Ice- Cube—artists who were most often accused of glorifying gangs and violence. While he isn't a pacifist, as evidenced on It Takes A Thief, he doesn't really condone gangbanging.
His objection to it is no more evident than on "Mama I'm In Love Wit A Gangsta," which features a virtually unknown singer named LaShaun. The song is basically a series of correspondances between a gangster in prison and a woman—the mother of his children— who remains in love with him. However, she's tempted by a new man (just a "friend") who has a Lexus and a condo in Texas and promises her a better life. She doesn't have the courage to abandon her lover in prison though, especially when he threatens violence from inside his cell. Still, she can't help but acknowledge that "in another life" her friend "might have been the man of [her] dreams." It's powerful stuff. LaShaun is a convincing actress. You can tell that her character is smart. It's sad knowing she's on the edge of choosing a better life for herself and her kids, who "keep asking about their Papa."
Musically, the song is aided fantastically by two great samples: "Mystic Voyage" by Ron Ayers and "Coolin' Me Out" by The Isley Brothers. Sonically, it makes "Mama I'm In Love Wit A Gangsta" very accessible. The song became a small hit, reaching number 49 on the Hot Rap Singles chart in 1994.
"Mama I'm In Love Wit A Gangsta" by Coolio (Feat. LaShaun)
"Mystic Voyage" by Ron Ayers
"Coolin' Me Out" by Isley Brothers
It Takes A Thief by Coolio