Maya Angelou
Black Pearls:  The Poetry of Maya Angelou
(Rhino Worldbeat)
MTV   Review
by Amy Kellner

Lately, Fiona Apple's been dropping poet/writer/civil rights activist Dr. Maya Angelou's name, saying she's her  "like, biggest inspiration."  Angelou is one of the most important figures of our time, though is probably best known as the author of the bestselling I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, or more recently, for her address given at the 1995 Million Man March.  And now, Fiona Apple isn't the only one to be giving Angelou the massive props that she deserves.

Rhino Records has reissued a collection of readings by Maya Angelou originally released in 1969, and long out of print.  The 33 short poems are mostly from the book Just Give Me A Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie.  The CD retains the original liner notes by James Baldwin, as well as the original crackling noises of the vinyl record, which gives it a nice faraway ambiance.  The poems are interspersed with five mellow jazz interludes to give pause for the listener to digest the heavy things that were just said.

Maya Angelou's voice sounds like times gone by, full of stories ranging from the segregated South to the changing landscape of urban America in the '60s.  Angelou's voice is motherly and soothing, but not in a cheesy "inspirational-tape" way.   She can sound wistful, sexy, or cynical with one slight inflection of her voice.   The first poem, "No No No No," starts the album off with a powerful, albeit slightly gross, jolt: "No/The two-legged beasts that walk like men/ play stinkfinger in their crusty asses."  Maya Angelou tells it like it is, no hold barred.

From there, Angelou's poems waver up and down from angry rants to tender love poems.  With 33 poems, mostly all under two minutes in length, Angelou can cover a lot of ground, and just about every emotion.  It's a very up-and-down journey.  Along the way, there are some nightmarish, darkly humorous playground-style rhymes.  Their chant-like quality hypnotizes, especially on "Harlem Hopscotch," and the two-parter "The Thirteens (Black)" and "The Thirteens (White)" ("Your cousin's taking smack/ your uncle's in the joint/your buddy's in the gutter shooting for his point/ The Thirteens/ Right on.").

On "Homewrecker's Lament" and "No Loser, No Weeper," Angelou plays the catty vixen, talking about men she's stolen, and threatening those who try to steal hers.   They're playful, but you can tell she means what she's saying, so watch out.

Taped poetry is an odd thing to listen to.  It's somewhere between a book-on-tape and a cappella singing.  Black Pearls requires seriously concentrated listening, but if that's the price for a bit of Dr. Maya Angelou's enlightenment, it's so worth it. fin