Memphis’s Don Lifted is a multifaceted, complex artist that simply demands your attention. Blending elements of poetry, hip hop, and old-school Tennessee blues to create an anti-genre sound that’s taken listeners by storm with its equal parts of dreaminess and commitment to the pursuit of something deeper. After last year’s 325i elevated the artist to a greater notoriety, he returned this year with “The Rope”, which dropped a couple of weeks ago and signals his change to an independent artist. “The Rope” is a haunting piece of music that ebbs and flows like a nightmare until it reaches a braggadocious coda that seems to announce the new era of Don Lifted. Watch the video for “The Rope” below, and keep scrolling for our chat with the Memphis multi-hyphenate:
“The Rope” is essentially two songs – the atmospheric, woozy first half and then the hyper-confident rapped second half. When you were creating this song, did you intend for it to move along in this way?
I appreciate that you picked that up. It kind of happened by accident, honestly. I wrote the verse first very sporadically to a guitar melody I had Madamefraankie record. I then had C Major build the drums over it as I kind of dictated to them while beating on the studio desk and he added more dynamics to it. I had Fraankie do these very threatening guitar moments throughout and without the drums it just felt like a warning, like something was about to happen — so I ended up writing that first “You’re on The Rope” part after the verse, I believe. It was almost like yo… you’re playing with fire. Let me write my love songs and introspective internally faced music before I start writing externally. Maybe I don’t have that much nice stuff to say then… maybe people start to see a version of me musically they haven’t seen. I think there’s a part of me in that song that doesn’t come out of thin air but maybe feels like the way I used to write/rap earlier in my career when I felt I had more to prove and had things to address.
The music video is incredibly haunting and meshes well with the lyricism of the song. How did that video concept come about?
High key, my real life and the things I’ve been doing socially the last two years or so created this video. Really before that, but the isolation and tension became much much worse as COVID became a thing, but in my life I was having all these “huge” breakthroughs and successes. It changed how people moved around me, changed how I had to move. I saw that some friends were not actually my friends and only there to take from me or gain by being next to me. A lot of it I suspected initially, but going on tour, signing, and releasing my album brought out so much in every aspect of my life. I had so much to pull from to put the video together. I wrote the song in 2019 when I was just starting to feel various tensions. It was a warning but about the time it came to put the video together, I had been through it. I was playing chess — trying to be smart and careful with everything I did as things got “better” for me. I had a lot of anxiety around my life and the success I was gaining. A lot of tensions had turned outright violent or had the potential to be. I wanted the video to feel like that. People pulling all over each other for nothing. People all around me who have no positive intention for me unless they also gain something.
I kind of represent this opposite energy to death but not life if that makes sense. I’m playing chess with death for my own life just as much as I’m playing for the job of death and the ability to control the “negative”. Taking all the negativity that has gone into me and reflecting it back outwardly through my art. Honestly, that’s what I’ve always been. Someone soaking up all these feelings and experiences and making art about the deepest parts of it. I’ve experienced a lot of anger and loss over the last few years but I’m much more mature and focused than I was before so I’m channeling it now. It’s less “woe, is me” and more “oh you got me fucked up”. Whatever comes next will have a lot of anger.
“The Rope” feels like a pivot point – it sounds adjacent to 325i, but there’s a general feeling here that might signal the next era of Don Lifted. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that idea – what’s next?
So… I’ve been waiting for this question. I am now independent. “The Rope” was the last song to drop on Fat Possum for now and it’s all love. I’ve learned a lot. From the moment I finished 325i in late 2020, I’ve been theorizing about my next album. I’ve been recording and building the production for my next album. I don’t know what I want to do label-wise. I’ve enjoyed this level of freedom and experimentation. I threw away the rule book. All the things that made Contour, Alero, and 325i are gone and in the past for me, and I’m leaning away from nostalgia. I want to deal with my soil – my spirit and the stories that happened before me weaving through my own timeline. It’s honestly the same struggle; being a black artist in the south trying to make a life for yourself singing what is, honestly, blues music. Music of the struggle: it’s what hip hop was and sometimes still is. Growing up in the south, especially in Memphis, brings about an energy and spiritual connection that can be scary to work with but I’m doing it. I see very far, my music over my life could be viewed as a diary of sorts. I knew The Rope would be the start of a transition even before I finished 325i. I could feel where my life was going. I really want to lean into the mirroring that I see between my life as a southern black artist and the lives of southern black folks before me, sonically and storywise.
Being from Memphis carries its own pedigree with the city’s iconic rap scene. One record in, how do you feel like you walk alongside your city’s history? Or is this even something that crosses your mind at all as you create your art?
Think about it. I normally hide my ambitions because down here being highly ambitious can make you a target. To folks that want the same thing but also to the white power structures intent on keeping Black Memphis in their place. Notice how many of the names that you think of when it comes to Memphis rap had to leave or went elsewhere to find their success. I’ve thought about it, of course, but for now, I’d like to fight to find that success for myself on this land. It’s more important that way. It opens more doors for others. They haven’t allowed us to become Nashville (for country) or Atlanta, shit, or even Houston. I want to be named with the great artists from this place when it’s all said and done. I want to leave my mark, which is hard to do, more than people understand. The power structures here when it comes to who and what is allowed platform and honor are very selective and honestly, racist. I mean, one of our most well-known artists Tommy Kha, an Asian person, just had their art removed from the airport because “people” were upset that he was dressed as Elvis in the piece. POC and Queer folks taking up space here is difficult and because I am both, it’s a hard battle to fight. I will only fight so much before I move on.
I really love your work with TONE HQ – we have similar initiatives here in my hometown of Birmingham, AL and I love the idea that’s raised in your bio of “working to make Memphis more accommodating through your own visual art and community-building initiatives”. What experiences pushed you to establish this organization?
So, the organization was started by my sister in this work, Victoria Jones, in 2014. She sent an email out that someone forwarded to me about starting a collective of black artists and creatives and based on my experiences in the art world I was like “yo, sign me up.” So under her vision and alongside many others over the years we worked to build a platform and safety for black artists and their narratives in this city because honestly there wasn’t and still isn’t any space for that. Memphis is very racist — so much so even the people who think they are liberals are actually centrists and very complicit with the things going on here. The poverty, the displacement, and gentrification, the outright erasure of black folk’s history from this place in every way — not just the arts, and if you are platformed, you best believe you’re being tokenized. We’re artists, mostly, so we opened a gallery and mixed use space in 2019. I was the Program Director and Curator for the gallery, then I transitioned to the Gallery Director and now in the future will likely be a board member. We used this space to create programming and foster conversations that helped advance the careers of many black creatives in the city. We became black artists’ “professional practices” class and we want to be a gateway to figuring it out here.