By Ezra Wheeler
To put it mildly, it’s been a tumultuous few months for Lawrence Matthews, the multifaceted artist better known as Don Lifted. Since the release of his critically-acclaimed album 325i in October of last year, Matthews watched much of his planned tour schedule dissolve, amicably split with his record label Fat Possum, resigned from his job as the Gallery Director of TONE, and was then left to deal with the emotional and physical consequences . Even in these highly-volatile times, that’s a lot for one man to deal with. “The ramifications from the pandemic are still being felt in ways that we still haven’t reconciled,” he says. “From touring to vinyl production, we’re all still adjusting.”
The timing of these set-backs was especially harsh given the fact that Matthews seemed to be on the precipice of greater national (and international) exposure and was finally armed with the institutional backing that he had lacked during much of his career. To his credit, though, Matthews has largely taken these multifarious stumbling blocks in stride, using the time as an opportunity to reflect on his past while simultaneously planning his next move.
On Friday, September 16, Matthews will celebrate both his birthday and the next chapter in his creative journey with a free concert at the Overton Park Shell. As anyone who has witnessed his live performances can attest, it promises to be an aural and visual treat, but this particular show is even more noteworthy in that it may be his last as Don Lifted (at least for a while).
“I came up with the idea of Don Lifted at 17 or 18 years old as a way to express myself in a therapeutic fashion,” he explains. “It feels like I have accomplished all of the goals of that kid, from releasing commercial projects to finding success in my hometown. And after this performance at the Overton Park Shell, I will have played at every venue in Memphis that I always dreamed of. So I’m left asking myself ‘What more is there for me to do in terms of this Don Lifted thing?’”
Matthews says that he has toyed with the idea of retiring his Don Lifted personae in order to create music under his own name for years, and that desire has only increased once he began feeling that his well-curated brand and image had become artistically restricting. “”There are certain aesthetics and sonic palettes that exist within a Don Lifted project, and I need to be freed from those and more able to show other aspects of myself through art,” he says. “It started to feel like everything that I’ve built over this past decade has started to evaporate, so maybe now is the perfect time to make that pivot.”
For many of his fans, this news may come as a shock as Don Lifted has reigned as one of Memphis’ most dynamic, unorthodox, and celebrated musicians for years, turning the conventions of what it means to be a Memphis rapper on their head. That said, it also seems inevitable that an artist who has built his reputation on confessional, soul-baring music would want the creative freedom to continue his growth on his own terms. “I know a lot of artists say this, but I really believe the music that I’m working on now is the best of my career,” he says. “It feels liberating to be as maximalist and ambitious as I want to be.”
Although Matthew’s enthusiasm for his forthcoming work is undeniably infectious, there is also a certain unavoidable sadness that accompanies the end to any particular artistic era, especially one as unique as Don Lifted’s. Thankfully for us fans, Matthews also expresses interest in revisiting his music as Don Lifted sometime in the future, especially under the right conditions. “While I probably won’t record any more new Don Lifted material, there are so many things with that project that I didn’t get to try. For example, an acoustic show has always been a goal…I would love to eventually revisit this music someday in an intimate setting, but only when it feels right.”
Whether you choose to view it as an ending or a beginning, Friday night’s performance at the Overton Park Shell will mark an important career milestone for one of the Bluff City’s brightest young stars. “To end this thing– which has largely been about me navigating my youth–on my birthday at the Shell seemed perfect. After that, it’ll be time for Lawrence Matthews to do whatever the hell he wants to do in any capacity,” he says. We have no doubts that his next act will be just as invigorating as the last.
Don Lifted will be performing at the Overton Park Shell on Friday, September 16, between 7:00 PM 9:30 PM. For more information, visit https://overtonparkshell.org/eventpage/donlifted22