Phoenix Playlist Picks: May 2021

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The tenth installment of Phoenix Playlist Picks — a series of monthly articles where Phoenix editors make Spotify playlists of the best new music each month and then select some of their favorites to write about — focuses on May’s new releases.

This month’s playlist boasts tracks from the beginning of a career with Mustafa’s debut album, the end of a career with DMX’s posthumous album and a lot more in-between. 

DMX – “Exodus”

Nearly two months after famed rapper DMX (Earl Simmons) died, a posthumous album, “Exodus,” was released May 28. While the aggressive style of rap Simmons popularized shows up in the tracklist, it’s almost washed away by the unguarded lyricism he displays on the latter half of the 13-track album.

The most heart-wrenching song may be “Letter To My Son (Call Your Father).” The lyrics read like a deeply personal voicemail to the rapper’s eldest son, Xavier. A now disconnected phone number is listed at the end of the track, cementing the fact the song feels like it was born of Simmons using his creative outlet after a fight with his first-born.

“What I’m saying is stop thinkin’ like a child / ‘Cause what if it’s when I’m gone / That you gotta realize you’re wrong?” the rapper pleads in the final few lines of the track.

While “Hold Me Down” — which features Alicia Keys — isn’t the final track on the album, it showcases Simmons making peace with a higher power, a closure reached before his sudden passing. Like much of his work, the rapper paints a picture of a life of hardship and judgement, though this time he finds solace and forgiveness in a higher power.

The actual final track on the album, “Prayer,” is just that — and it’s the only fitting way to end an album so heavily influenced by Simmons’ faith. The remix of his 2006 “Prayer VI” track closes out what may be the rapper’s final release with a pleading message to God that those “led astray” have their courses corrected, his final words as vulnerable as ever, delivered with the flow that made him famous.

Mustafa – “When Smoke Rises”

Mustafa Ahmed’s debut album, “When Smoke Rises,” made a splash in the indie music scene — or as much as a record with muted guitars, gentle pianos and subdued vocals can — with its release May 28. 

Ahmed himself, as well as his label, have described his style of music as “inner city folk,” a fitting title for songs that borrow so frequently from the folk genre. The soft instrumentation used throughout the album is deceiving in the best way possible, giving an air of comfort to the tragic stories and harsh realities told by Ahmed’s lyrics. Violence and loss aren’t new topics for the artist and it’s clear in how expertly he navigates them.

“A bottle of lean, a gun to your jeans and a little faith in me / A plane in the sky, the only starlight on this neverending street / The cameras and cops coulda been stars on our mothers’ news screens,” Ahmed sings in the album’s opening lines on “Stay Alive.”

These themes, which lend themselves to Ahmed’s vulnerable style of writing, help make the tracks cohesive beyond just their sound. All of the songs feel unique, making the 23-minute experience feel even fuller.

While many may not know Ahmed for his solo music, it’s almost a guarantee they have encountered the former rapper’s work elsewhere. He’s helped write tracks on The Weeknd’s “Starboy” album and Camila Cabello’s debut album along with singles for the Jonas Brothers and Shawn Mendes. 

With the success of his newfound, folksy style of writing, it seems his rap talents may be taking a backseat — appearing as merely an influence amongst the sea of softer tunes — while he blazes a new trail for his future releases.

Poppy – “Fear of Dying”

It would be an understatement to say Poppy (Moriah Rose Pereira) has come a long way from her 2017 bubblegum-pop debut album, “Poppy.Computer.” 

After being nominated for Best Metal Performance at the 2021 Grammy awards, it’s safe to say she has leaned into the metal and punk influences she seems to thrive under, and the latest example of that is her newest single — a cover of the 2000 Jack Off Jill song “Fear of Dying.”

Released May 26, the track leans away from the industrial aspects of past releases in favor of a more pop-punk sound. Regardless of the slight genre shift, Poppy handles the new sound masterfully, singing through the earworm chorus and throwing in the occasional screaming vocal with ease.

Pereira’s 2021 Grammy loss seems to have only motivated the genre chameleon further, making the prospect of future music even more exciting.

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