The Midnight Life
Here’s the jig for veteran rappers: Getting older in the rap game is a trap. Generally, there are two routes that the old warhorse MC can go when his or her relevancy starts to slip: you can cravenly chase modern trends in hip-hop in a desperate bid to appear cool to a bunch of young people who don’t, won’t, and probably shouldn’t care about you; or you can descend into increasing bitterness, lashing out against new artists while doubling down on your older material in the vain hope to recapture the magic with your original fans who would likely prefer to listen to your classics. Both paths are often fraught with pitfalls and usually result in the artist in question becoming a sad self-parody. Nothing is as awkward as not knowing that everybody in the club is laughing at you.
Like many veterans, Quik has a healthy discontent with the state of both the rap industry and his longstanding place within it. Quik has been so often acknowledged as one of the most criminally underrated rappers in history that it must rub a little raw. On “Broken Down,” Quik bemoans a lack of shared culture in hip-hop while sneering, “How did all my fans get replaced with critics?” He could easily become a bitter rapper while producing substandard work if he were to give in to his most obvious impulses. So it’s a testament to DJ Quik’s immense talents that he transcends this quagmire while continuing to produce unexpected musical revelations all throughout his latest album.
As one of the most talented musicians in hip-hop, Quik’s strength as an artist has always been in the meticulous attention to craft that he brings to his song-making. Each track on The Midnight Light contains the lush instrumentation and detailed craftsmanship of a master producer. Whether it's an unexpected banjo riff or twinkling piano keys that float ethereally beneath the drums, there is a joy of musicianship in the way that Quik produces and arranges a song, and always a new detail to discover buried deep within a song’s arrangement. On the breezy, bongo-fueled “Life Jacket,” Quik applies a vocoder to oft pimp rap co-conspirator Suga Free’s vocals and splashes Free’s crooning over the background till it builds to orgasmic intensity. While on “Bacon’s Groove,” the album’s gorgeous instrumental centerpiece, Quik employs veteran studio musician and longtime collaborator Robert "Fonksta" Bacon’s deft guitar playing to reach emotional ends.
Quik raps with a remarkable heat-seeking focus as if he's out to prove something not only to the rap game but also to himself. To an extent, his production skills have always been more celebrated than his lyricism, but Midnight Life should serve as a firm reminder to all that Quik is as vicious with the pen as he is on the boards. On “Pet Sematary,” he seeks to resurrect a dying recognition for classic gangster rap and traditional R&B while taking fans on a tour of his hometown of Compton. “My music is flawless/My lyrics is lawless/Your hood wouldn’t be eating/I’m the reason for all this,” Quik raps as if to remind folks of who exactly they are sleeping on. A failure to recognize and Quik will slap you with the lyrical pistol cradled in his lap.
Quik raps with a remarkable heat-seeking focus as if to prove something not only to the rap game but also to himself.
While there is nothing truly bad here, the album does suffer a small amount from not having a signature single on it. You won’t find anything as immediate or iconic as “Dollaz & Sense” from 1995’s Safe + Sound or the seminal title cut from his precocious debut, Quik Is the Name. While this is a relatively minor concern, it does prevent Midnight Life from being one of the elite releases in DJ Quik’s canon.
Yet The Midnight Life continues the tradition started with 2009’s BlaQKout, his joint album with fellow West Coast icon Kurupt, and 2011’s The Book of David. This trilogy of late-period LPs, produced nearly two decades into his career, are uniquely inventive and have firmly re-established DJ Quik as one of the most gifted rappers of his generation. DJ Quik proves that aging in hip-hop does not necessarily mean following the game’s most obvious roads. Quik is as restless and ready for action as ever. As an old man in the rap game, sometimes it's just better to build your own club rather than trying to visit the same old spots.
B.J. Steiner is a writer living in New York. Follow him @doczeus