When Smoke Rises
2021 • ALTERNATIVE/POP • REGENT PARK
Canadian poet and singer Mustafa’s debut record features pleasant sound, poetic compositions, and beautiful tributes, however, seems afraid to go beyond its comfort zone.
The title of Mustafa’s debut record as a solo artist is a reference for the Canadian rapper and songwriter Smoke Dawg, who was murdered at the age of 21 after being hit in a shooting in broad daylight. Mustafa, formerly known as Mustafa the Poet, and Dawg were friends, both of them were former members of the hip-hop collective Halal Gang, a project that put the two artists on the view of indie music nerds. Since then, Mustafa has been climbing a mountain, sealing ties with Drake and FKA twigs, and writing for Camila Cabello. But even at the top of the mountain, his sharp poetry and intimate sound reflected his difficult childhood and adolescence, which were witnesses to violence, and dear friends who have passed away.
Influenced by Richie Havens, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen and featuring production by James Blake and The xx’s Jamie xx, When Smoke Rises is a set of delicate songs that manage to work the heaviest subjects subtlety. Singing about everything from romantic frustrations to issues of death, grief, and resilience, Mustafa delivers a cohesive and very honest record, which goes deep into his soul to assess his past and, when it comes out, conveys all his feelings through its faithful sound and well-constructed lyrics and polished. Although, in the end, it doesn’t seem all that different or special in the midst of several other albums, it remains a great project.
The opener, “Stay Alive,” it’s a great archetype to the album. The song paints Mustafa singing about how violence is not worth it. “All of these tribes, and all of these street signs/None of them will be yours or mine/But I’ll be your empire/Just stay alive, stay alive, stay alive,” he sings on the hook. Meanwhile, he opens his heart by playing a beautiful acoustic guitar. This truthfulness and troubled feelings that are conveyed in a balanced way can be seen throughout the record. While in “Capo” he and Sampha seem to deal with depression, in “Ali” he sings about Ali Rizeig, another friend of his who died. “Ali, you know our hearts were at their fullest/Ali, there werе no words to stop the bullets,” he sings. In “The Hearse,” in its turn, he contrasts his lyrics about death and mourning with his sound, something more playful. For last, “Come Back,” although sounds a little bit like something from some James Blake record, is still pretty good, with Mustafa singing desperately to someone who probably passed away and asking it to “Please come back/At least in my dreams.”
Mustafa is a descendant of Somali mother and Sudanese father. Although he was born and raised in Toronto, in When Smoke Rises he brings his cultural heritage running through his veins. “Air Forces,” produced by Jamie XX, is one of the best tracks on the record. Although it is still not that impressive, it features a nice and well-made atmospheric and experimental sound. While singing about worrying about his friend, who is lost and in danger, his voice seems to be muffled by the spiritual beats. But, the most prominent part is the Sudanese Tribal chant in the background concerning his heritage, which ended up not only giving charm to the track but also making it very catchy. Later, in “What About Heaven?,” where he seems to talk to a friend who is about to die (“We forgot to talk about Heaven/And leaving/And what it would mean/And how I would grieve”), some people seem to perform an ancient cultural chant while also playing some homemade instruments that make up the instrumentation of the song.
However, even with all these positives, When Smoke Rises seems a bit… not challenging. Certainly, Mustafa experimented and played with both his sound and his lyrics, however, it is impossible not to leave this album wishing for more, for something bolder, something more challenging, or something a little more different that goes beyond a few momentary passages. Look at “Separate” and the sound of “Capo.” Both of them are pretty great, but, over time, there’s nothing there that really stands out and much to make it last neither. It’s definitely a good record, but it’s also something that only plays on the safe side — something that seems too scared to really expose its truth.