His success battling hillsides in flames ultimately convinced Coolio that he'd be able to return to Los Angeles without returning to drooling junkiedom. Back home, he got a deal to cut another single, "You're Gonna Miss Me." About the contract, and the middling success of the recording in general, he says succinctly, "I got dicked again." He subsequently hooked up with another group, WC and the MAAD Circle, which recorded a disc for Priority Records. He still considers himself a member of that act, but he's found more success on his own. With the assistance of a DJ named Wino, he cut It Takes a Thief for Tommy Boy and watched it lift him from obscurity in a few short months. The first single, "County Line," is an autobiographical blast that draws on Coolio's crack years--he sings about being asked for an autograph while waiting to get his welfare check--without sounding the slightest bit self-pitying. "Fantastic Voyage" is even better, a summertime anthem that uses a generous sample from the 1980 Lakeside groovefest of the same name to subtly subvert the gangsta mentality. At a time when Ice Cube and Snoop were using old-school funk samples as the backdrops for ghetto revenge fantasies, Coolio found a way to recapture the simple fun the music exuded in the first place. Later, on "Mama I'm in Love With a Gangsta" (a quasi-duet with feisty vocalist LeShaun), Coolio plays the part of a jailed felon who fears his lover is being unfaithful to him while he's behind bars. This is a potentially serious subject, and in dealing with it, Coolio uses profane language that pulls no punches. Still, the basic warmth of the rapper shines through, transforming the track into something slightly comic and undeniably charming. Even when he tries to talk tough, he remains a spaced-out, warmhearted guy.

Of course, admitting this in the current rap climate isn't good for the longevity of artists' careers--which in hip-hop aren't very lengthy in the first place. Thus, Coolio isn't about to concede that Thief works so well because of its lighter moments. "The last album was really personal, and some of the songs on it were really dark," he insists. "And some of it was really street, too."

But Coolio seems to understand his strengths better than he at first lets on. He describes his upcoming album, due in September, as having "better production than the last album. And the songs overall are more in the mode of being entertaining. They're meant to give you a more positive feeling than the last ones." His choice for the inaugural single from the disc, he elaborates, is "Too Hot," built atop a sample from Kool and the Gang's identically titled 1980 smash. "It's a sexual-awareness song, and kind of an AIDS-awareness song, too. But even though it's a song people can listen to and learn from, it's also something people will get some enjoyment out of."

The rapper's just as certain that the reconfigured hip-hop and funk in which he specializes hasn't run its course, in spite of suggestions by New York rappers such as Nine that the style has beaten itself to death. He swears that there are no Parliament-Funkadelic samples on his new platter, and while many of the other songs he's used as source material (by Smokey Robinson and Sly & the Family Stone among them) are from the same general era, he feels he's been able to give them a fresh twist. "Besides, there are enough people out there who like this kind of music and who aren't tired of it," he says. "I try not to get into the whole West Coast-East Coast thing, anyhow. I don't really comment on people's little qualms and pet peeves because, really, it's a jealousy-type thing."

Coolio admits to feeling envious himself when he was booked to play this year's Lollapalooza on the second stage, even though Thief has sold far more copies than nearly every album released by the main acts on the bill. "It did bother me at first," he says. "It was basically an ego thing, but my ego has been shattered into thousands of pieces so many times that it's easy to put it together again. I'm just happy to have the opportunity to tour and to have my shit be heard. Because I still remember when the only person hearing me was me, and when I was having to steal just to eat.

"I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of, but, shit, a lot of people do. And I haven't done anything that stops me from sleeping at night."

Lollapalooza '95--Second Stage, featuring Coolio. 1 p.m. Saturday, July 8, Fiddler's Green, $28, 830-TIXS; Coolio. 8 p.m. Sunday, July 9, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $15.75, 447-0095 or 830-

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