Following the Spirits and Bringing Truth Back into Music
by Amanzi Arnett
Photos On Stairs: photo by Lawrence Matthews & Ahmad George
Inside: photo by Sam Leathers
Lawrence Matthews wants to get real. The multi-hyphenated artist is newly independent, preparing to unveil a new body of work, and consistently wading through what it means to choose himself in a world that encourages conformity. The lean but big-spirited rapper has some new things to say. The aptly titled Between Mortal Reach & Posthumous Grip is a dance between his natural self, his spiritual journey, and his experiences in the industry. Rather than leaning into coded messaging and half-hearted confessions, he seeks to bare his soul and move into a space that’s more truthful and provocative than anyone has ever seen from him.
“I want to make true art. Most of what I believe doesn’t line up with the mainstream understanding. And because I’ve lived a life of trying to align with that, I refuse to go back to that. Many factors contributed to the making of the album,” he says. “Messages, warnings, premonitions during 325i and feeling like my life was about to change and not yet having evidence of that change.”
Change is something that Matthews has become well acquainted with. During the pandemic, he found himself in a season of transition. After shedding his stage moniker (Don Lifted) and carving out a more authentic lane for himself, he is following the signs to a new vision and sound, and has a new album on the horizon.
“I don’t think people understand what it means to be seeking self through art, what it does to you, and what you’re asking of the universe in so many ways. I wanted to create something eternal and extend long past my physical experience here. I needed to create something that was beyond me and I needed a lot of help to do it. And a lot that help came in the form of a lot of channeling and spiritual connection that helped motivate, inspire, and push me.”
Following the spirits has become a theme in the life of Lawrence Matthews. In Memphis, a city full of haints and stories longing to be unearthed, finding oneself in the company of the spiritual world is nearly inevitable. Earnestine & Hazel’s has alleged hauntings, the Lorraine Motel casts a shadow of death over downtown, and a series of monuments to Black mourning and suffering litter the city. Memphis is a city with a rich spiritual heritage and an ever-present African undertone.
Matthews released his album’s opener “Green Grove,” setting the course for what the entire project is about. It’s a full-bodied reflection of the South and its hold on us both spiritually and physically, an extension of the blues.
The delicate and harrowing sounds of the blues are laced throughout his latest album, tying folk traditions with modernity. The blues and Memphis rap have a shared lineage and close bond. The storytelling and relationship with the macabre in Three 6 Mafia’s street renderings along with the laments of Playa Fly are glimpses into a sound and tone unique to the Bluff City and its blues legacy.
Matthews found a new appreciation for the blues at his former label Fat Possum, which is primarily known for signing many Delta blues artists. “I was exposed to these artists in a literal way and felt a kinship to them,” he spoke of his time at Fat Possum. “These were people living complex and layered lives but were very talented people. We are from the same place. This soil. We are fueled by the same experiences and what it means to be Black in the South, and it manifests in telling certain types of stories.”
He began to excavate his own family lineage, revealing his ties to men in his own past and bloodline, reflecting on the ways it mirrored the worlds of the Deep South artists he was getting to know through their recordings.
There was a certain level of African spirituality woven into their music that Matthews also expressed in his music and visuals. They are elements that, along with the Christian mythology that permeates southern culture, highlight the deep relationship between the often maligned spiritual connections Black people have explored for generations. For him, it became a kinship that, before that point, he hadn’t felt with other genres. It became his foundation. A certain type of understanding that echoed the changes he foresaw in his journey as both a human being and an artist.
“There were a lot of deaths happening in and around that project. Whether it was personal, people connected to the project, or people being sampled, there was a lot of transition. It’s a very death-heavy project. It’s an entertaining and fun listen, but like life, it has all the aspects. You have to leave something behind to gain something else.”
Exploring those complex feelings of longing, grief, emptiness, and separation actually led Matthews to a deeper and more honest relationship with his community and himself. Versions of himself also had to die, making way for softer edges in the exploration of his fluid identity and experiences he never would’ve predicted for himself. The unbelievable became inextricably linked to what is real. Communion with people and ideas that are absent from the body gave him a clearer path to the soul he wanted to remain present in his art.
“There are many conversations about the soul of music being missing,” he said of the ongoing conversations about the current state of art. “It’s losing the warmth and the quality of what we love. A lot of us are competing for visibility and validation through social media apps, and people are going to create whatever they need to create to get that. So they aren’t creating purely from the exploration of self. The artists that we studied cared about operating from that space. Or they cared about a more capitalistic space for making money or selling records. But even with that, you’re at least chasing greatness. A lot of people are chasing digital currency that doesn’t pay off in the long run. People are becoming divested from the process of making art that we love so much.”
In an age of repetitive media creation, monetized staged content, and the looming threat that deep fake videos and AI images pose to our perception of what’s real, truth isn’t prioritized. Industries have also increasingly leaned on manufactured sounds and imagery, often undercutting or entirely erasing the presence and contributions of living artists.
“We are seeing a revolution of artists fighting against systems that forget how important artists are to the systems. Whether it’s the writers strike or any other battle for artist autonomy, you don’t get to have this entertainment without these people being present and using their voices. Execs are so separate from what it means to create things that they feel like they can do it without you. They feel like they can use machines.”
Matthews is interested in going back to tangible ways of interacting with fans, art, and his craft. There is a desire for some feeling. Underneath the facade of social media and public-facing personas, the mask of a pseudonym, and the glamour of stage personas, Lawrence Matthews sought to find the most supernaturally human version of his creativity.
“I found something more sustainable. It’s the self. You’re getting more deeply connected to self. And that includes grieving. I talk about tough things in my work, but it’s just life. It’s human life. It’s my life. It’s your life. It’s being truthful. Truth is rare, not commodified. The album represents the process of my own spiritual alchemy.”
An alchemist is what we are witnessing in the art of Lawrence Matthews. Navigation of the self, his place in the musical landscape of his hometown, his contributions to the world, and the preservation of his voice along with Black voices who have made art possible. Presenting a collage of influences and an amalgamation of bold spectacle and quiet reflection.