Justin Matthews hold his newly released CD "Before The Beginning" at his Aurora home. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado
Justin Matthew hold his newly released CD “Before The Beginning” at his Aurora home.
Portrait by Ali C.M. Watkins/Sentinel Colorado
AURORA | Justin Matthew cracked a chicken bone and licked his lips before hollering to an old friend across the bar.
On a late lunch at Challenger Sport Bar, the Aurora-based musician seemed to know everyone – either from ample time spent at Challenger and other Aurora haunts, or from his childhood growing up in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood.
Matthew embraced the man, who asked him what he had been up to in recent years.
“Oh you know – same old,” he said.
That’s an understatement. Matthew recently released his debut album, Before the Beginning, an impressive collage of R&B tracks threaded by audacious vocals and instrumentation.
The 14-track album is one firmly rooted in Matthew’s life growing up a prestigious pastor’s son in Park Hill and a wayward period thereafter.

But Matthew, 36, said the album represents a culmination of almost a decade of performing in the Denver metro and the realization that he can fully express himself through a powerful voice evocative of early 2000s R&B greats like T-Pain.

Justin Matthew sings a few verses at his Aurora home.
Photo by Ali C.M. Watkins/Sentinel Colorado
Matthew didn’t always have a voice worthy of showcasing, he said.

Over two baskets of wings, Matthew spoke admiringly of growing up in the “first family” of Park Hill Christian Church. His father, Reginald Holmes, is still a fixture among African-American churches in Denver. His mother was the church secretary.

When he was about five years old, his parents bought him a drum set. He would play in church and and home, inspired by Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown beats.

But his first foray into singing failed disastrously, he said. In the 6th grade, he tried to perform at Denver’s Smiley Middle School talent show but was booed to death. It’s an episode that haunted him.

So he ditched the microphone and focused on playing football – something he discovered he was good at. Eventually, he earned a scholarship to Alabama State University to play, but dropped out. He later dropped out from a different college in New Mexico.

But the latter stint offered him something other than school and sports: Music. His friends there built a ramshackle recording studio in a closet and would make hip-hop and R&B music.

He learned he had a gift for writing lyrics and singing, developing a impressive range that cuts prominently through bass-heavy beats. He wrote his first songs during this time, including “Like Rain”, which is featured on the album.

“You learn you find something you didn’t have,” he said of that era.

Football no longer had much to offer him by the age of 23, he said, and he set himself to working – starting at local department stores and a Home Depot.

Later, he was charged with breaking and entering after drunkenly walking in to the wrong Boulder apartment after a football game. He’s not proud of the mistake.

But Matthew is a spiritual seeker, and a go-getter. He started singing at his father’s church. Through a friend, he was offered to sing back-up at Jack’s jazz club in downtown Denver. He’d slip original songs into long cover sets – music inspired in part by neo-R&B luminaries like Erykah Badu and D’Angelo.

“That s**t sticks to your bones, like these chicken wings,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be hollow,” he said of his own music.

For about the last decade, he’d perform at local venues and clubs and landed a few big openers, including for singer Musiq Soulchild. Meanwhile, he bounced around schools where he worked as a paraprofessional, most recently with kids with special needs.

He said he was frustrated with stagnant progress, but knew he wanted to put out an album of his own. Finally, he joined forced with Denver music polymath James Roberson, who spearheaded the recording process for about three years and played most of the instruments on the sprawling catalogue.

Matthew is proud of the result, which is rife with intense instrumentation and the occasional welcome respite of slow jams and love songs. It’s professional through and through – emblematic of a seasoned stage performer.

Mostly, Matthew sings about realizing potential and achieving realistic dreams, sampling Martin Luther King and Park Hill legend Chauncey Billups, a former NBA star and friend of his.

But he’s also passionate about redemption and respect for his community in Park Hill and Aurora. It’s the pastor’s son in him.

After a bit of small talk at Challenger, Matthew wrote down the name of his father’s church and encouraged him to swing by. The man had been in and out of homeless shelters and had been drinking that afternoon. But Matthew just smiled, hugged him and said he see him at church on Sunday.

“It’s crazy how things can turn out,” he said.