Photo by Samuel Engelking
Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is When Smoke Rises, the long-gestating debut from singer-songwriter Mustafa.
Mustafa Ahmed, formerly known as Mustafa the Poet, is a son of Regent Park, a downtown Toronto neighborhood known as the home of Canada’s first housing project, and a current center of the always-raging wars of marginalization, gentrification and urban policies failing to uplift our most vulnerable citizens. Originally a spoken word poet who gained fame as a pre-teen for his ability to clearly see the ills of his public housing surroundings, in recent years, Mustafa has lent his wordsmithing to singles from Camila Cabello, the Jonas Brothers and another son of Canadian immigration, the Weeknd. His songs for those pop stars were appropriately frothy, widescreen wistful and emotionally dented, but they could never have prepared anyone for Mustafa’s own music: Mustafa’s debut, When Smoke Rises, is a raw album of modern acoustic folk, an emotionally open, sad album that tries to find some uplift in all the loss, some happiness despite the oppression that saddles a neighborhood like Regent Park, some meaning behind all the grief.
When Smoke Rises opens with “Stay Alive,” Mustafa’s debut solo single, a track that opens with one of his friends talking about losing his mind and feeling like he needs to carry a gun; Mustafa sings the title phrase as a plea, a hope, an affirmation. Over sparse drums and strummed guitars, “The Hearse” recounts a friend going from wearing the same clothes to wearing a funeral shroud, and “Air Forces” finds him begging someone to stay inside and not run the risk of fighting over a “crease” in their shoes. These songs of quiet desperation could come off as relentlessly bleak in less deft hands; Mustafa channels the existential worries of his neighborhood and friends in a way that both honors them, and doesn’t valorize or demonize anyone. He’s just worried about his friends and family being able to come home from the territory wars in Regent Park, doesn’t want his friends to end up like those lost to the streets of his neighborhood — like the rapper Smoke Dawg, killed in broad daylight in 2018 — and is aware of the structural realities of the housing projects that keep his friends and families in such a tenuous way of life.
The raw “Capo” is the album’s centerpiece: It features a recounting of people lost, and a show-stopping guest verse from Sampha, another man whose music is centered on grief, oppression and trying to see your way out of both. “I’ve held it all in, but I can’t go much longer,” Mustafa sings in the first verse, capturing what might as well be the thesis of When Smoke Rises.
It’s an album that makes an impact; it’s impossible to come away from its eight songs and 24 minutes without thinking about the grief in your own life, and the way it echoes across your family and friends. Mustafa aimed to make an album that spoke to his unique experience, and if nothing else, When Smoke Rises could have only come from him.
Andrew Winistorfer is Vinyl Me, Please’s Classics and Country Director, and an editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection and The Best Record Stores In The United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, and co-produced Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.