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Rapper Coolio, who helped to shape hip-hop, has died at 59

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The rapper Coolio has died. He was 59 years old. And at this point, we don't know the cause of his death, but what we do know is that he helped shape what hip-hop is today. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF COOLIO SONG, "GANGSTA'S PARADISE")

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Listen - no, really listen - to the opening bars of Coolio's biggest hit, "Gangsta's Paradise," and it's the darkest, most nihilistically dejected thing you've ever heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GANGSTA'S PARADISE")

COOLIO: (Rapping) As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I take a look at my life and realize there's nothing left.

LIMBONG: Yes, it was released as part of the soundtrack to the Michelle Pfeiffer movie "Dangerous Minds," and yes, it got even more famous after "Weird Al" Yankovic gave it the parody treatment, and yes, it won a Grammy Award. But besides all of that, the song still stands on its own as a piece of hip-hop history.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GANGSTA'S PARADISE")

COOLIO: (Rapping) I'm a educated fool with money on my mind. Got my 10 in my hand and a gleam in my eye. I'm a loc'd out (ph) gangsta, set tripping banger. And my homies is down, so don't arouse my anger, fool.

LIMBONG: Coolio was born Artis Ivey Jr. in South Central Los Angeles in 1963. His mom moved him and his sister to Compton when they were kids. By his 20s, he used his focus on music to help him get over an addiction to crack. While he became known as a progenitor to the hard West Coast LA gangster rap sound, his music did have some wistful warmth to it. His platinum-selling album "Gangsta's Paradise," for instance, had a song dedicated to his kids, who he wished he saw more often.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMILIN'")

COOLIO: (Rapping) My life is your life, and your life is mine. Through thick and thin, I'm your friend till the end of time. I'll make sure you get your props. You can call me Pops. And anything you need, I'm pulling out all the stops.

LIMBONG: His career never again really reached the highs of "Gangsta's Paradise," but he did use his fame to appear on reality TV shows, from "Celebrity Big Brother" to "Celebrity Wife Swap." In 1995, he told the British music magazine The Face that he knew his fame was a Hollywood fantasy and would end soon, but in order to make sure his kids were set, quote, "till then, I'm going to play it for everything I can."

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C U WHEN U GET THERE")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I'll see you when you get there, if you ever get there. See you when you get there.

COOLIO: As we walk down the road of our destiny and the time comes to choose... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.