Title: Caged Bird Songs
Artist: Maya Angelou
Label: Smooch Music
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: November 4, 2014
The late Dr. Maya Angelou, renowned writer, poet, actress, singer, and dancer, is an icon in African American culture. Caged Bird Songs, one of the last projects Angelou worked on before her death this past May, combines her poetic spoken words with modern hip-hop production. The album was produced by RoccStarr (who has worked with Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Hudson, and CeeLo Green) and Shawn Rivera (the lead singer of Az Yet, the R&B vocal pop group formerly on La Face/Arista Records).
In an interview, Angelou said, “This project is important. It’s woven into the tapestry of our lives, and we’re being serious and giving and kind about it.” Though at times Angelou’s spoken words and the music are a bit disconnected, they are strong on their own terms, and each track wisely features modern themes that comment on black culture, identity, and family.
“Still I Rise” is the standout track on the album, fulfilling the potential of Caged Bird Songs and showcasing Angelou’s beautiful, uplifting poetry. Most of the vocals on this track are sung by Az Yet, with bits of Angelou’s own voice intertwining, leading up to a call and response between the two on the chorus. Full of soul and hope, the gospel style of the song fits the lyrical content, as Az Yet sings, “I rise up from a past that’s rooted in pain.”
One of the opening tracks, “Human Family,” has a very catchy beat, with hip-hop and rock influences. It remains constant as Angelou speaks over the music with a powerful message about the commonality of all people. The ways her vocals are cut off and compiled over the constant beat, however, makes the song feel choppy and a little disconnected instead of blended. “Sepia Fashion Show” also has this problem, but the music excels due to it’s dynamic and changing mature, instead of a straight electronic rhythm with Angelou’s vocals overlaid. This track features a distinctly hip-hop vibe, as well as a distinct chorus and verse format.
“Harlem Hopscotch” combines surf rock with electronic music to create another musically inspiring track, featuring shouts in a different language and congas. All these different elements come together with Angelou’s words to paint a vivid picture in the listener’s mind.
With its use of auto-tune, “Ain’t That Bad” sounds both lyrically and musically like a pop song. Far surpassing the previous track with auto-tune effects, it shows how applicable Angelou’s poetry is today, as well as the undeniable connection between hip-hop and poetry.
While Maya Angelou is by far a better written talent than a rapper, this album is creative and showcases her legendary work in a whole new way. The lyrics fit the hip-hop style and the music is innovative and often catchy. Caged Bird Songs has the potential to bring Angelou’s words to a new generation.
Review by Anna Polovick