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Coolio took a ‘Fantastic Voyage’ and invited the whole world along

The song that launched him to fame should not be outshined by the one that defined it

Coolio, above at a performance in Zurich in 1997, died at age 59 in Los Angeles on Wednesday. (Michele Limina/Associated Press)

Whether it was poetry or a fluke, Coolio’s quick trip to the top was right there in the song titles: “Fantastic Voyage” to “Gangsta’s Paradise” — and if fate decides to perform a poetically fluky encore, the ’90s rap star, who died in Los Angeles on Wednesday at 59, will eventually be remembered for the song that launched his fame instead of the one that defined it.

Everybody knows “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Your parents, Stevie Wonder, Weird Al, Michelle Pfeiffer, misguided wedding DJs, the most-soused White person at karaoke, everybody. In a way, the song’s ubiquity has helped us forget the weirdness of its arc: A melodramatic selection from the soundtrack of an entirely regrettable 1995 White-savior movie, “Dangerous Minds,” lurched “through the shadow of the valley of death” and took a wrong turn onto the very top of the pop charts.

But “Fantastic Voyage,” a breakout single that smothered MTV the summer prior, is the Coolio cut that deserves to bask in its own magic-hour sunshine for perpetuity. Over a backing beat made out of industrial-grade g-funk elastic — an interpolation of Lakeside’s 1980 tune of the same name made somehow bouncier than its source material — Coolio, who had already cut his teeth as a member of Los Angeles troupe WC and the Maad Circle, evangelizes for rap music writ large: “We’re going to a place where everybody kick it, kick it, kick it, yeah that’s the ticket.”

And if rap was still on its way to becoming America’s dominant pop idiom in the summer of ’94, “Fantastic Voyage” definitely helped speed everything along. The song’s mood felt tight and buoyant, but its lyrics underscored rap’s inherent capaciousness, addressing the psychic damage of gun violence, the fraudulence of the American Dream, a couple of nifty lessons in music history via stray references to Motown, the Staple Singers and Parliament-Funkadelic and lots more — a reminder that rap music got big by being big.

Things obviously got even bigger for Coolio within the space of a year. “Gangsta’s Paradise” dropped in August 1995, quickly went multiplatinum in half a dozen countries and eventually became one of the most recognizable rap songs on the planet. That’s an achievement. But “Fantastic Voyage” remains a jam, a journey, a mission statement and, ultimately, an invitation. All aboard.

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