Label: Regent Park Songs
Released: May 28

To say Mustafa’s When Smoke Rises is unique would be an understatement. At its heart, it’s a dedication from Mustafa Ahmed to his friend, Toronto rapper Jahvante ‘Smoke Dawg’ Smart, who was tragically killed in a downtown Toronto shooting in 2018. But it’s actually much more than that. When Smoke Rises is a suite of eight songs meditating on the seemingly endless cycle of grief. These are folk songs with sparse instrumentation accentuating Mustafa’s achingly weathered voice and vivid poetry. Within a few scant lines of the opening track “Stay Alive,” Mustafa’s deft wordplay quickly establishes the oppressive external forces that have historically impacted the Regent Park neighbourhood of Toronto in which he grew up. It’s within this framework that Mustafa and his friends negotiate the sobering reality of gnawing dread, truncated life expectancy, and the too-regular mourning of cherished friends and family. 

Given this context, Mustafa’s largely unadorned musical framing, as delicate and minimalist as it sounds, is as resistant and subversive as any hard-hitting beat. The haunting, ambient melancholy of the standout “Air Forces” is anchored by a Sudanese tribal chant and like many other tracks on the album it is often punctuated by defiantly disembodied voice notes from Mustafa’s fellow Halal Gang members. Yet despite their contributions, alongside those of high-profile sonic conspirators Frank Dukes, James Blake, Sampha, and Jamie xx to name a few, the focus remains unerringly and impressively on Mustafa, whose vulnerable presence is so genuinely raw it cannot be supplanted. This emotional range is underlined on “The Hearse,” a vengeful track directed at those who have killed his friends and on the heart-rending final tracks “What About Heaven” and “Come Back.” At one point on the latter track, Mustafa’s futile plea “Please come back/At least in my dreams,” could induce a lump in the throat. It’s moments like these that When Smoke Rises feels less like an album and more like a necessary cathartic outlet for a very necessary voice. —Del Cowie