Coolio – Gangsta’s Paradise – Lyrics analysis

Gangsta-rap songwriting

Coolio – Gangsta’s Paradise – Lyrics

Verse 1

As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I take a look at my life and realize there’s nothin’ left
‘Cause I’ve been blastin’ and laughin’ so long
That even my momma thinks that my mind is gone
But I ain’t never crossed a man that didn’t deserve it
Me be treated like a punk, you know that’s unheard of
You better watch how you talkin’ and where you walkin’
Or you and your homies might be lined in chalk
I really hate to trip, but I gotta loc
As they croak, I see myself in the pistol smoke
Fool, I’m the kinda G that little homies wanna be like
On my knees in the night, sayin’ prayers in the street light

Chorus

Keep spending most our lives
Livin’ in a gangsta’s paradise
Been spending most their lives
Livin’ in a gangsta’s paradise
[x2]

Verse 2

Look at the situation they got me facin’
I can’t live a normal life, I was raised by the street
So I gotta be down with the hood team
Too much television watching, got me chasing dreams
I’m an educated fool with money on my mind
Got my ten in my hand and a gleam in my eye
I’m a loc’d out gangsta, set trippin’ banger
And my homies are down, so don’t arouse my anger
Fool, death ain’t nothin’ but a heart beat away
I’m livin’ life do or die, what can I say?
I’m 23 now, will I live to see 24?
The way things is going I don’t know

Bridge

Tell me why are we so blind to see
That the ones we hurt are you and me?

Chorus

Verse 3

Power and the money, money and the power
Minute after minute, hour after hour
Everybody’s running, but half of them ain’t lookin’
It’s going on in the kitchen, but I don’t know what’s cookin’
They say I gotta learn, but nobody’s here to teach me
If they can’t understand it, how can they reach me?
I guess they can’t, I guess they won’t
I guess they front; that’s why I know my life is out of luck, fool!

Chorus

Bridge

Ain’t no gangstas living in paradise
Ain’t no gangstas living in paradise

 

Coolio – Gangsta’s Paradise – Lyrics analysis & meanings

This song uses part of the instrumentation and chorus of the song PASTIME PARADISE,  by Stevie Wonder, 1976.

The version of Coolio has become an international hit, quickly and sustainably No. 1 on the charts, in the United States as in Europe. We will try to understand the reasons of this first wolrdwide success of gangsta-rap music.

 

Verse 1

As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death

Surprise! The previous lyrics by N.W.A., Eazy-E or even Ice Cube, had accustomed us to some shattering beginnings made of foul verbal abuse. Here, Coolio has preferred to strike the mind of his audience by doing precisely the opposite: he begins on a beautiful verse that connects his song to a long and noble religious tradition, since this sentence is actually a quote from the Bible, Psalm 23 of the Old Testament, used over and over by many artists (Jay Z, Nas, Tupac, Kanye West, Marilyn Manson, The Offspring, Megadeth, etc.)

The verse also recalls the famous beginning of Dante’s INFERNO:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.

As we will see, those 3 texts – this song, the Psalm 23 from the Bible, and Dante’s Inferno, share several fundamental ingredients: self-awareness, existential questions, a dark, gloomy atmosphere, a climate of anxiety, fear, and a need to find a meaning to life and suffering.

Coolio told Rolling Stone about the way he wrote the song in a feeling of “divine intervention”, after L.V. had made him hear the chorus and choir parts he had recorded:

Coolio: I sat down and I started writing. Hearing the bass line, the chorus line and the hook, it just opened up my mind.

“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death/I take a look at my life and I see there’s nothing left” — I freestyled that; that came off the top of the dome and I wrote that down. I thought about it for a minute, and then I wrote the whole rest of the song without stopping, from the first verse to the third verse. You know, I like to believe that it was divine intervention. “Gangsta’s Paradise” wanted to be born; it wanted to come to life, and it chose me as the vessel.

This opening in a religious, sacred, dark atmosphere obviously coincides with the title, the Gangsta’s Paradise, and announces a form of hybridization of rap with another great genre of the American black song: the Gospel, the song of prayer, of Christian inspiration.

through the valley of the shadow of death: this way to evoke the daily life of a gangster in L.A. shows a surprising literary sensibility from such a character (supposed to be vulgar and violent, not literary) and it sounds particularly tragic to see the trivial, vulgar world of the ghetto with the sacred, noble eyes of the Bible, with an implicit feeling of empathy.

I take a look at my life and realize there’s nothin’ left

I take…: this second verse to the first person confirms that it is an autobiographical, personal, even introspective text. The author looks at his life, realizes: it is what one does when one undertakes to make an existential assessment, a therapy, or a confession. So we are in this register, this verse announces a confession on an intimate tone. It’s totally not the perspective of the previous gangsta-rap songs we analyzed, in which psychology was just absent: the characters of FUCK THA POLICE for example were agressive, but superficial, not deep.

I realize there’s nothing left: the judgment is severe, and tragic. Someone who speaks so personnally and whose blues sounds so heavy… triggers a feeling of empathy and friendship from the public. The fact this feeling of failure comes from a gangster, a hard-boiled man, who has the courage to confess his intimate thoughts so sincerely, makes it particularly touching.

Coolio was born in Compton in 1963 and was a member of the huge gang in the area, the Crips. That’s probably the reason why he sounds more authentic than some other rappers who were “studio gangstas“, and why he knows about the melancholy of this dangerous lifestyle.

‘Cause I’ve been blastin’ and laughin’ so long

I’ve been blastin’: the expression is ambiguous, it evokes both the fact of taking drugs (blast his brains) and shooting (causing an explosion with a gun). This polysemy is probably doubly true, he did both, he says both in one word.

blastin ‘and laughin’: the two verbs contrast totally, and yet go together. We find the same mix of violence and good-natured cheerfulness as, in particular, in the style of Eazy-E or The Notorious B.I.G., the gangsters who kill you then make fun of your corpse.

That even my momma thinks that my mind is gone

My momma: this term is touching. The man who is speaking does not try to play strong, he doesn’t need to, he’s not an offending kid who likes to repeat “motherfucker” all the time to impress people around, he’s way above those juvenile attitudes. He testifies to a real attachment to his mother, as a man, admitting that he knew him when he was a little boy – this term refers to his childhood, before his gangster life.

Even his mother believes that he has lost his mind, this element also sounds very touching and evokes empathy. However, for the moment, he gives no sign of madness, we follow his words very well, the verses are flowing nicely, we see a mature and wise man, in a pathetic situation of moral crisis.

But I ain’t never crossed a man that didn’t deserve it

This verse is obscure by the fact that “it” remains undefined, we do not know how to relate it in the context.

But perhaps he subtly means that he’s a hitman, which would explain the line: when he crosses a man, it’s because someone else sent him to kill this man, who thus “deserves to cross his killer“?

Me be treated like a punk, you know that’s unheard of

punk, is not a follower of the English musical movement of the same name, but a man in prison who is the victim of rape by his colleagues, often he is the most fragile or the least protected, the weakest. To be a victim of homosexual rape is presented as a symbol of shame and dishonor.

You better watch how you talkin’ and where you walkin’

How do you talk, and where you walk, that’s also Coolio’s concern in this song, and he shows he’s doing what he’s saying, because this threat is formulated in correct English, without familiarity, without excess.

From this line, the mood and the singer’s attitude start to change: he was confessing himself at the first person, showing more confidence in us than hostility, but suddenly he turns agressive.

Or you and your homies might be lined in chalk

The threat continues and culminates, with the same reserved elegance. He does not need to swear, to insult, he is experienced, old, he knows himself so usually capable of violence that he is not even fascinated by verbal violence. So he is satisfied just describing the result of his untold, cold-blood reaction in case we mess up with him: you and your homies might be lined in chalk, he shows this scene as a journalist would describe an objective fact, in a dispassionate way. It’s just a way to say “I’ll kill you“, but isn’t that 100 times more likeable, to make us understand this brutal idea through a subtile and schocking image?

By the way, Coolio wrote the lyrics, but it is Stevie Wonder who asked the songwriter not to use the usual verbal violence, choice which helps making the song sound more universal and more mainstream. Coolio also told Rolling Stone:

Coolio: But the thing was, we still had to get Stevie to sign off on it. When Stevie heard it, he was like, “No, no way. I’m not letting my song be used in some gangster song.” So that was a problem. And it just so happened that my wife, she knew Stevie’s brother — I guess he had been trying to tap that for years [laughs]. She made a call to him, got a meeting with Stevie and talked him into it. His only stipulation was that I had to take the curse words out. I had two places where I had the N-word in it, and two places where it was, like, “Fucked in the ass,” or something like that. And Stevie said that if I’d take that out, he would sign off on it.

I really hate to trip, but I gotta, loc

This verse enriches the psychology of the character. He told us he feared for his sanity. But we have seen him relatively laid-back, in control, lucid, simply realistic. This is what he confirms: he hates tripping – yet suggesting he can – and he has to, because he is a gangster. The term he uses, loc, is some slang of the gang of Crips, which means “buddy” but those who understand this term know that the guy using it is a gangster – it’s a subtle way to reveal it.

As they croak, I see myself in the pistol smoke

This verse is beautiful. It is both very cynical and heartless – he uses only three wordsas they croak, to evoke the death of others, and he uses this verb to croak which is used for animals, showing his contempt towards his victims; and yet just after the author shows himself a visionary poet, with this beautiful image of seeing himself in the pistol smoke, as a metaphor for a painful self-awareness as a killer.

The rhyme between croak and smoke further reinforces the beauty of the image.

Fool, I’m the kinda G that little homies wanna be like

Fool: this soft insult helps to reinforce the impression that it is a wise man speaking, a wise man who knows that we do not know as much as he does.

The mention of this awareness of playing a role as a model for the youth, further enriches the character with a paternal dimension. These little homies who listen to him will necessarily sympathize with this verse.

On my knees in the night, sayin’ prayers in the street light

This line seems to evoke a scene where a gangster has just made another one kneel in the night, and before killing him gives him a moment to make his prayer. Or simply, it may be Coolio singing his prayer before our eyes.

In any case this line resonates with irony compared to the previous one, because this situation of praying at night in the street does not seem to be enviable for the little homies. Who would dream of being despaired to the point of praying in the street in the night?

So, we can reinterpret the initial “fool “: Coolio wanted to say: “you admire me as a gangster, but you do not know how painful it is“. Which is a way of teaching morality to the youth to dissuade it from sinking into urban violence…

 

Chorus

Keep spending most our lives

The vocal style of the chorus, very choral, contrasts with the rapped verses said by a single voice. It surprises the audience with its crooner-like or opera-like lyrical intensity.

In accordance with the choral style, which evokes the plural, a crowd that sings, a collective voice, this verse speaks to the first person of the plural – even if the “(we) keep spending” is only implicit, the “we“are present in the pronoun “our” lives.

Livin’ in a gangsta’s paradise

This second verse identifies who is the “we” who is speaking: we are the ones who grew up in gangster Paradise, which is a beautiful metaphor for saying: in ghettos, in the streets.

The original verse of Stevie Wonder said “Livin’ in a pastime paradise“, so “they have lived all their lives in a lost paradise“.

Been spending most their lives

Repetition of the same verses, with two notable variations:

  • the verb “keep spending” is transformed into “been spending”, which leads to a slight shift of meaning: with keep spending, the action still takes place, while with been spending, it has stopped.
  • the point of view “we” is transformed into “they”.
  • these two variations combined increase the feeling of tragic, because we pass from present to past and from in and out of the community.

Livin’ in a gangsta’s paradise

[X2]

The outcome of this chorus is that:

  • It does not change anything to the action – it’s not dramatic at all
  • It expresses the implicit emotional content generated by the first verse, namely sadness, in the form of an empathic lamentation with those populations living in gangster’s paradise, sharing a beautiful feeling of human brotherhood.

 

Verse 2

Look at the situation they got me facin’

To take a look, to contemplate the ruins of his life, is what Coolio was doing at the very beginning of the first verse.

Look: direct address to the public. It is familiar, it is friendly, so it participates in the peaceful atmosphere of the song, said in a tone of confidence.

They: we do not know (yet?) who these people in position of Antagonist are. Suspense over their identity.

I can’t live a normal life, I was raised by the street

This is the honest and sincere expression of a lucid gangster.

The juxtaposition of the two parts of the verse, two short sentences, without logical link (while we easily hear a “because” between the two), shows that for him this logical connection is obvious. Sometimes ignoring is a way of emphasizing. Here one feels the evidence in the thought of the gangster, who makes a natural connection between his education and the result of this education, stuck in a gangster life. For once, the street does not play a positive role in gangster ideology, it is not presented as a good school of life.

So I gotta be down with the hood team

Be down with: the ambiguity of this expression has already been pointed out in the STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON analysis which contained the verse “That I’m down with the capital CPT“. To be down is to be depressed, or to be downstairs, but to be down with is to be in tune with. We can thus understand that the main meaning of the expression is “I must stand with my neighborhood team“, but we feel that the meaningI must share the depression of my friends” is in the air too.

Too much television watching, got me chasing dreams

It sounds derisory, that someone’s dreams come only from TV, commercial and vulgar mass media.

I’m an educated fool with money on my mind

The double structures are linked together, the verses are constructed in two elements that constrast.

An educated fool: antithesisparadox. A fool, once educated, should no longer be fool, and someone educated should not only have money in mind, but higher values. The gangster would aspire to it, but he is constrained by the need for money and a lack of mass education.

Got my ten in my hand and a gleam in my eye

Beautiful parallel construction, which balances the hand and the eye, and the material and the spiritual.

I’m a loc’d out gangsta, set trippin’ banger

Loc’d out gangsta: the pun plays on “locked“, locked up, and “loc“, the slang term of the gang of Crips, of Coolio, to designate the leader or the action of ruling a gang. So, synthesis: he’s stuck in his role as a gang leader.

And my homies are down, so don’t arouse my anger

My homies are down: same pun, to be down is to be ready as well as to be depressed.

Fool, death ain’t nothin’ but a heart beat away

Fool: still the wise man speaking, aware of his lucidity compared to our supposed ignorance.

Death ain’t nothin’ but a heart beat away: this beautiful aphorism (sentence full of wisdom) recycles, in a way that is both conformist (because it is a common place of Greek-Latin classic culture and education) and original (because here it is a man of the street who says it) the old “Memento mori” of the Latin (“remember that you are dying“).

I’m livin’ life do or die, what can I say?

I’m livin ‘life do or die, this expression is also pretty and well found, livin’ life repeating the term “life” and loading it with positive meaning, then radically contradicting it with the expression “do or die”. So, synthetically, he lives a life particularly condemned to death, as if he were even more mortal than mere mortals.

I’m 23 now, will I live to see 24?

The revelation of this age of the singer changes the game. It is tragic to see such a young man seem so wise – we see that the street leads to early maturity – and also worried about the likely brevity of his life. “THE BREVITY OF LIFE ” is the title of a famous text by the Latin philosopher Seneca, related to the “Memento mori“.

The way things is going I don’t know

This final confession about not knowing sounds surprising – because so far he presented himself as a wise, lucid man, he taught us his knowledge – but it is consistent with the classical, ancient sources who inspire the song, and which invite (as do gnosis or skepticism) to reserve one’s judgment, to accept to recognize one’s ignorance, the mystery of things, of destiny. So being aware of one’s unability to understand the world, stands as a paradoxical proof of wisdom.

 

Bridge

Tell me why are we so blind to see

The theme of the blindness of humans might also be a reference to ancient philosophers, this time Plato with his allegory of the cave, where humans are described as people locked in a cave who can only see their shadows, and not access reality and knowledge.

Wikipedia describes this allegory as follows: “It depicts men chained and immobilized in an underground dwelling who turn their backs to the entrance and see only their shadows and those projected objects far behind them. It exposes in pictorial terms the conditions for the accession of man to the knowledge of reality, as well as the no less difficult transmission of this knowledge.

We can find various elements of this allegory, the singer who walked in “the valley of the shadows of death“, made a prayer in the night, worried about his sanity, sought wisdom in a sad world…

That the ones we hurt are you and me?

The question gets completed, and the audience realizes no one can answer it. It emphasizes a paradox that leaves everyone powerless, and just lets the bitterness of his statement float away – we hurt each other in this hell – without being able to relieve the pain.

We are close here, in 1995, from the spirit of charity songs like WE ARE THE WORLD (1985) by the gathering of artists “USA for Africa” ​​or HEAL THE WORLD (1991) of Michael Jackson. The three songs have in common the condition of blacks as moral concern, or to be sung by a black singer particularly concerned.

This moralistic theme, where a gangster condemns his own way of life, also recalls another rap song, WE’RE ALL THE SAME GANG, sung by a rally of rap artists, the “West Coast Rap All-Stars”, on the initiative of the founder of the powerful Crip gang, shot then disabled and retired from his gang life. Coolio exploited the same anti-violence stream, made even more urgent after the 1992 LA riots, when the underprivileged youth sacked the city for six days, after the acquittal of the four white cops who had beaten a American black motorist, Rodney King, after a speeding suit.

 

Chorus

Verse 3

Power and the money, money and the power

Power and money, money and power

Another nice effect of symmetrical construction, the inverted repetition of these two terms strengthens them but probably also expresses the circumspection of the author – he turns these two values in his head, without knowing what to do, so it sounds massive.

These values are those that constrain him (the power of the whites, the white economic superiority) and inhabit him (he has become a man of power, even if he is an illegal anti-power, he has become a money man, even if it is by illegal activities).

Minute after minute, hour after hour

Symmetry is repeated and builds a regular, geometric, elegant, remarkable network of sounds and meaning.

Everybody’s running, but half of them ain’t lookin’

We noticed that the first two verses opened to the “I” and spoke of personal thoughts in an intimate tone. This third verse, on the contrary, encapsulates depersonalized abstractions, and here makes “everyone” act, the zero degree of personal identity. This shows that we have taken a step back and are now looking at things from above – as an elderly man, or a dead man, looking from Paradise.

It’s going on in the kitchen, but I don’t know what’s cookin’

I don’t know what’s cooking: the expression is ambiguous, it is at the same time literally, “I do not know what is cooking” (as a meal), and metaphorically: “I do not know what is going to happen to me“.

This kitchen is heavily influenced in American culture by the expression “hell’s kitchen“, which is found in innumerable dialogues and lyrics.

The rhythm of all this passage is limpid and remarkably classic, since the author signs here a series of 4 alexandrines. These alexandrines are, according to tradition, divided into two blocks of six syllables, so that these four verses make a clear structure:

6 + 6

6 + 6

6 + 6

6 + 6

At the beginning of this series, each block of 6 syllables is itself made of 3 pairs of syllables, each first element of the pair bearing the tonic accentPo wer and the mo ney… Mi nute af ter mi nute, etc., which makes the whole structure particularly regular and beautiful, mimicking the ticking of a clock, making us live through the prosody the effect of the passage of time.

They say I gotta learn, but nobody’s here to teach me

This characterThey, has already been met at the beginning of verse 2, and has not been defined, so we can only assume who it is. Precisely, the fact that the rapper names them a second time indicates that they are familiar, so we are supposed to understand who it is. So, probably, the system people, the teachers, the cops, the others. This They may also be simply a cover of the previous Everybody, but nothing helps to be sure. The indefiniteness, the collectiveness of this undefined character makes it disturbing, as a kind of fuzzy Antagonist, all the more threatening that he gives orders (“they say I gotta learn“) without anyone knowing where they come from.

Nobody’s here to teach me: after all the rest of the lyrics, this verse resonates with tragic accents, because it could be the exclamation of an abandoned child, whereas we know that it is the one of a mature gangster – always condemned to the same fundamental ignorance, dismissed from the knowledge that “They” require. “They” are omnipresent, “they” have the power to give orders, but “they” do not guarantee that we are in a position to execute their orders, which puts the person in a position of paradoxical injunction, known to make people crazy. A psychologist named Gregory Bateson had even defended the thesis according to which schizophrenia would be explained by this kind of paradoxical injunctions, as if they could tear the mind up.

The structure of the verses will again be repeated harmoniously, functioning now in the mode of opposition: on one side “they“, on the other “me“, on one side an absurd injunction, on the other side a report of helplessness.

If they can’t understand it, how can they reach me?

Learn, teach, understand, reach, we are in the lexical field of education, but a failed education, or rather a denied right to education.

I guess they can’t, I guess they won’t

See how the meaning vanishes from the preceding verbs, which are simply taken over in the negative.

I guess they front; that’s why I know my life is out of luck, fool!

That’s why I know my life is out of luck, fool: this verse is very strong, it arrives in a conclusive position and is very meaningful.

That’s why, finally gives the key to everything, the explanation of the bad luck of his life that the rapper lost in the Valley of Death sought: in fact, there is no explanation, is just because of “They“.

Fool: last mention of this fool, that is the public for the rapper – and this time the insult is particularly strong because, since the public has just adhered to the expression of the desperation of the rapper, and that he just showed that his worries came from They, which probably designates us, the audience, society, well he forces us to admit that we are his oppressors!

Chorus

Bridge

Ain’t no gangstas living in paradise

Ain’t no gangstas living in paradise

Last remark with tragic accents, which plays on the double meaning of “paradise“: we understand that it is no longer about the Gangsters Paradise that are the American cities, but about the true Christian paradise, the one where virtuous people go, not gangsters. This means the author knows he is condemned to go from one hell to another, and that resonates with the original verse “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death“.

 

SYNTHESIS

Literally speaking, GANGSTA’S PARADISE is one of the best-written songs of the whole gangsta-rap movement, and – is it a coincidence? – one of his biggest commercial successes.

We can see it from the beginning, its verses refer to the sacred writing, to the mystical and elevated universe of faith, to the existential and philosophical mysteries of life and death, in short, to noble elements, far from the verbal trash of NWA tubes for example.

Here, no insults every third word, no niggas, no bitches, no racism or misogyny. On the contrary, for once the sentences are long and the discourse, very articulated with the help of logical links and circumstantial connectors, testifies for example the way in which the first verse is constructed in a long complex sentence:

  • As I walk…
  • I take a look…
  • Because…
  • That…
  • But…
  • Me…
  • You…
  • Or…
  • I… But…
  • As…

If this song differs so much, stylistically, from vulgar and brainless gangster rap, it is also because its main character seems at the end of the roll, precociously nauseated by his gangster career, sinking into depression and doubt, leaning aggressive rap towards the melancholy of the blues.

After Coolio’s blues of the gangster who is afraid of death and thinks of pulling out, Tupac and Dr Dre with CALIFORNIA LOVE will introduce another way to renew gangsta-rap mixing it with other mainstream genres: the pop-rock figure of the happy, successful and hedonistic gangster.

Gangsta-rap songwriting
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