In the very bleak midwinter

ROCK
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The Independent Culture
HE MAY seem most notable this week simply for performing live, at a time of year when rock reviewers are desperate to find anyone to write about, but Coolio, one of the founding muthas of LA hip-hop, has his place in pop-music history. "Gangsta's Paradise" (Tommy Boy) was the first rap single to materialise in the British charts at No 1. The album of the same name was described by one critic as "rap music for people who don't like rap", a verdict that has been proved at least partly right by the record's unprecedented sales. But the evaluation need not be pejorative. Coolio's ruminative lyrics are often concerned with escaping from the ghetto, physically and mentally. Persuading techno-phobes to buy his album, and thereby breaking out of rap's demographic ghetto, too, is a triumph. Indeed, his nervous rubato often seems to be pushing against the confines of the backbeat (either that, or it's just reminiscent of Stephen Fry's attempts at the rap game on Whose Line is it Anyway?).

In South Central Los Angeles, shooting first and asking questions later is the etiquette. Coolio has done his shooting - and his shooting up; now he's asking questions. One track is entitled "Is This Me?" ("This really ain't me no mo'/ But these streets won't let me go"). And on the new single, "Too Hot", he sings: "We gotta make some sense of this mess that we made". The album is a cinematic sweep through gangsta-land - romantic, contrite, confused and optimistic - which offers both coherent storytelling and a surprising range of musical styles. The burnished strings and tickling funk guitar wouldn't be out of place on an Isaac Hayes record. Nor on records by the Isley Brothers, Kool & the Gang and Stevie Wonder, for that matter, because that's where the samples originated.

The hit single is based on Wonder's "Pastime Paradise", and also benefits from the heavenly vocals of baby-faced crooner, LV, and a video featuring Michelle Pfeiffer's cheekbones. At the Clapham Grand on Thursday, LV (or "L" as I call him) sang a few of his own smoochy songs. His material aims to get the listener into bed, but succeeds in putting you to sleep instead. Hailed by the announcer as "the future of r'n'b, soul and swing", LV's only innovation seems to be to contaminate seductive soul with the me-me-me rodomontade of macho rap. "I am LV," he chants, over and over again. He's a narcissistic Barry White - they're a similar shirt-size, anyway - the Walrus of Self- Love.

LV and his musicians departed, leaving us with the DJ's basic hi-hat and bass samples. Four rappers scurried on stage, shouting. Like a nightmarish double vision of the Outhere Brothers, they yelled: "Throw your hands up in the air," the idea being, I assumed, to contrast with Coolio's more inviting, detailed sound. It was only after making out some of the lyrics of "Kinda High, Kinda Drunk" that I realised that Coolio had been on stage all along. That was his tangled pipe-cleaners hairstyle all right, but his rapping was unrecognisable, his tumbling exhortations hardened to an incomprehensible bark. He waited until the beat had stopped at the end of the Aids-awareness anthem "Too Hot" before bellowing statistics, an admission that the song itself wasn't getting the message across clearly.

The dirty, back-to-basics arrangements had none of the record's subtlety, variety or clarity. I wouldn't have minded had the poster not promised "Coolio with Full Live Band". So, he's still a gangster all right: he was hustling us there and then. The musicians did return eventually, to add some texture to "Get Up Get Down". However, they spent more time being introduced and thanked by Coolio than they did actually playing. After the climax of "Gangsta's Paradise" the show dissipated into a rambling shambles, with Coolio doing a good impression of a man unsure of what to do next. People who don't like rap would have liked it even less after this performance.

The most (only?) thrilling segment of the show was when he invited prospective MCs from the audience to take the stage. "If your shit is wack, we will cut your ass," he announced (meaning, "if your aptitude is below par, we will not spare our derision"). It seemed as if Coolio were an Uzi-packing Edna Everage, primed for audience humiliation. But there was no need for any ass-cutting: the four karaoke rappers stood up easily against Coolio and the gang. If the amateurs had only put more effort into making their hair look stupid, they'd have had a show of their own.

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