Mustafa Honours His Grief Through Beautiful Poetry on 'When Smoke Rises'

BY Papa MinnowPublished May 25, 2021

On debut album When Smoke Rises, Mustafa uses his acclaimed poetic ability to deliver a raw and emotional story about the dangers and hopes of living in Toronto's oldest social housing project, Regent Park. Those same dangers led to the untimely losses of his friends Ali Rizeig and rapper Smoke Dawg, who was the victim of a shooting outside of a Toronto nightclub in 2018. Still dealing with grief, Mustafa uses his gifted poeticism to express his feelings of pain, hurt and hope, and he masterfully crafts it all into a timeless journey for the world to hear.

Album opener "Stay Alive" serves as as a window into Mustafa's soul as he elegantly sings over a sombre guitar about the struggles of surviving to see another day. It's in this musical approach that Mustafa is able to harness the immense power of his storytelling as honed through his poetry, which he first earned praise for as a child. Driven by slow-burning, guitar-driven tracks, the album flows gracefully, with more percussive numbers such as "The Hearse" providing a nice change of pace. 

The 24 year-old musician simultaneously tells the narratives of street rap through uplifting indie folk instrumentals, driven by his beautiful vocals. The most prominent display of this fusion occurs on "Separate." Mustafa's lyrics contextualize how street violence claims young lives too soon while being backed by an acoustic guitar that lets his vocals shine through: "How we're too young to fade away / How we're too young to feel this pain / How we're too young to separate." It's the best of both worlds that manages to capsize the traditional sailings of what's typically found in both genres.

Throughout this journey, Mustafa shows a great amount of depth and introspection as he deals with the pain of losing loved ones. Some of the album's most moving moments come about when he questions his own existence. On "Air Forces," he ponders, "To what are we even destined, will we have wives and children or is that not written for you and I?" The song "What About Heaven" reveals thoughts of his friend falling short of God's forgiveness: "What if you're not forgiven?"

"Capo" finds Mustafa struggling to contain his grief from the loss of Smoke Dawg. His fury boils over on "The Hearse," in which he seeks revenge by any means necessary: "They gon' pay their price in blood and that's on everything I know." It's a tune that's more reminiscent of a love song, but here it's filled with a softly delivered rage. On "Ali," a pulsing drum emulates the beat of a heart, a testament to Mustafa's creative composition.

He's not alone. Sampha delivers a standout performance on "Capo," as he sings to a roaring crescendo that elevates the song's back half. On "Come Back," James Blake croons on a fading ethereal beat that closes out the album like a candle flame flickering before being blown out.

When Smoke Rises is a succinct and well-crafted album that serves to tell the story of Mustafa's pain, grief and loss in way that honours his unique voice. Mustafa manages to transcend genres while remaining true to himself as he navigates his emotional trauma.
(Regent Park Songs)

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