“That Getter,” the first single from DJ Quik’s new album The Midnight Life, had one guest, and that guest’s name was David Blake. David Blake is Quik’s birth name, so I assumed this was Quik himself, rapping with a slightly different flow and doing a “T.I. Vs. T.I.P.” thing, expanding his persona some slight bit. As it turns out, David Blake is actually Quik’s son, who can really rap and who shows up four different times on The Midnight Life. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. There is, after all, precedent for rap legends to throw guest verses to their rapping sons. E-40 and Ghostface Killah both got there before Quik. But nobody would’ve ever confused Droop-E or Sun God with their fathers. Quik, on the other hand, still raps in a sprightly, conversational flow, the same one he used on his classic debut Quik Is The Name 23 years ago. And if anything, he’s grown even more adventurous as a producer, finding ever-weirder things to do with his silky live-band funk. Both in terms of voice and vision, Quik still sounds young. Like his son. The Midnight Life is Quik’s ninth album, and he’s long, long past the point where most rappers fade into obsolescence. But with The Midnight Life, he’s made an album as curious and adventurous and slick and strange as anything he’s ever done. He’s a national treasure, one of rap’s most enduring visionaries, and he’s still got a young man’s sense of adventure. We’re lucky to still have him around, finding funky things to do with banjos.
That banjo thing is entirely literal, by the way. The Midnight Life opens with a skit in which a couple of chuckleheads visit Quik in the studio, hoping for some knowledge on the rap game. Here’s what he tells them: “I think hip-hop need a banjo in it.” The mystified jokers run away giggling, telling each other that Quik is crazy. The first song is called “That Nigger’s Crazy,” and as that skit fades out, the first thing you hear is a banjo. It’s plucking out a spare, clean, almost fussy little riff, and it sounds undeniably funky. That skit is a rare moment of self-awareness for Quik; once up on a time, he would’ve presented that banjo without comment and dared you to notice what he was doing. He’s showier about it now, but he’s still taking an instrument steeped in cultural signifiers and stripping away all its significance, using it for a dope little sound and ignoring everything else that comes with it. On the song, that banjo shares space with huge, loping drums and precise DJ scratches and the buttery vocal runs of the ’80s R&B legend El Debarge. It has Quik issuing some truly baroque and specific threats at some unnamed woman — “And if you keep annoying me / I’ma pump your pussy full of lead and poison both your ovaries” — and then claiming he’s so cool that he can “nut ice cream.” It’s a bizarre, fun, reprehensible, wickedly slick little song, and it’s one of many here.
That banjo is nothing new for Quik. The actual banjo itself is (probably) new, but Quik has been playing around with unexpected sounds for decades. On Quik Is The Name, Quik rode the G-funk wave to some extent, but he also integrated the zoned-out electro that preceded it in California. In years since, he hasn’t seen any contradiction between being a hard motherfucker and a singular musical mind. He’s been in and out of prison thanks to some truly involved familial problems, and he’s hit MC Eiht with maybe the most devastatingly effective dis bar of all time — “E-I-H-T, can I continue? / You left the G out cuz the G ain’t in you.” But he still throws weird jazz-funk instrumental tracks on every one of his albums. He’s put in heavy work with people like Raphael Saadiq and Talib Kweli. He made BlaQKout, his 2009 collaborative album with Kurupt, into one of the most deeply bugged-out production showcases in recent memory. The Midnight Life is very much the product of that contradictory motherfucker, the one who spends hours in the studio trying to find the perfect organ tone and then uses it underneath a threat to pistol-whip your teeth out.
Quik talks a lot of shit on The Midnight Life, and it’s funny, lively shit. Quik is almost certainly not the first rapper to make fun of haters for “working at the train station,” but he pushes that punchline further than most by finding something even more humiliating about it. (In this case: “And they gotta reapply every year for that job.” He put research into that train-station line!) When Quik is luxuriating in good-life trappings, he can come up with some amazing lines: “I’m moving at double the speed of light / Third passport, popping Ambien on international flights.” But he’s better when he’s clowning the changing state of rap: “Cyber gangbangers, internet gimmicks / How did all my fans get replaced with critics?” (That’s not too different from what he was doing on “Jus Lyke Compton,” from his second album. It’s not simple old-rapper kvetching.) And he’s best when he’s indulging in Paul Mooney/Katt Williams-style sex jokes. You have to go into a Quik album knowing that he is going to say some misogynistic shit, and you have to turn the moralizing part of your brain off. But if you can make that adjustment, Quik becomes a funny motherfucker: “Here’s a message for the tech-head bitch / Don’t FaceTime at night, that’s Blair Witch.”
But you don’t have to turn any part of your brain off to appreciate what Quik does musically. As his career has progressed — The Midnight Life is his 10th studio album — he’s completely given up on chasing radio, and these days, he’s chasing his muse down different rabbit holes. There are two different loping smooth fusion instrumentals on the album, “Bacon’s Groove” and “Quik’s Groove 9.” And he also gives up showcases to singers. El Debarge gets an interlude all to himself, and Quik offers up all of the slow-bumping soul song “Why Did You Have To Lie,” the sadly unappreciated ’90s boho-R&B cult star Joi. Joi gets a whole song to herself to lambaste a clueless idiot who cheated on her without first telling her and getting her permissions (which she says she would’ve given), and Quik just lets her do her thing. He doesn’t jump on with a verse or anything. That generosity extends to the rapping guests, too. Quik’s old foil, the hysterical pimp rapper Suga Free, gets a couple of showstopping verses in, and an old timer like Mack 10 gets to give the best verse I’ve heard from him in years, partly because he’s given the same opportunities as relative youngsters like Dom Kennedy and Bishop Lamont.
Meanwhile, Quik’s production choices are as singular as ever. At this point, he can’t rest on old G-funk sounds, and his style couldn’t be further from the chilly minimalism of recent West Coast rap. Instead, he gives us things like the train whistles and backwards music-box samples of “Trapped On The Tracks,” the orchestral strut of “Puffin Tha Dragon,” and the sound, on “The Conduct,” of armies of vocoders trying to eat each other alive. Nobody else in rap sounds anything like the Quik we’re getting on The Midnight Life. Nobody else even could.
The Midnight Life is out now on Mad Science Recordings. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Foxygen’s messy, sprawling, head-fucked …And Star Power.
• Kindness’ smooth soul-dance excursion Otherness.
• Pharmakon’s nightmarish noise-blast Bestial Burden.
• Meatbodies’ bright, tuneful self-titled garage-punk debut.
• Greylag’s sweetly rootsy self-titled debut.
• Dads’ dramatic post-hardcore clanger I’ll Be The Tornado.
• Former Woods/Babies member Kevin Morby’s smooth solo move Still Life.
• Absolutely Free’s self-titled art-punk debut.
• Diamond District’s sharp rap argument March On Washington.
• Stars’ dramatic dance-popper No One Is Lost.
• Bloc Party frontman Kele’s dance-inspired solo affair Trick.
• Mineral offshoot Zookeeper’s new one Pink Chalk.
• Postal Service collaborator Jen Wood’s solo effort Wilderness.
• Horrendous’ melodic death metaller Ecdysis.
• Little Big League’s tangled ’90s-indie throwback Tropical Jinx.
• Celestial Shore’s nervous psych-rocker Enter Ghost.
• Bing & Ruth’s experimental, orchestral Tomorrow Was The Golden Age.
• Kittyhawk’s brassy emo throwback Hello Again.
• Melvins’ latest missive Hold It In.
• Today Is The Day’s hate-blasted return Animal Mother.
• Swallowed’s snarling death/doom attack Lunarterial.
• Occultation’s psychedelic doom deep-dive Silence In The Ancestral House.
• Hot Chip side project the 2 Bears’ The Night Is Young.
• Kleerup’s guest-heavy Scandinavian synthpopper As If We Never Won.
• Afrobeat drum legend Tony Allen’s Film Of Life.
• Inter Arma’s single-track The Cavern EP.
• The Krill/Ovlov/LVL UP/Radiator Hospital split EP.
• Kissing Is A Crime’s self-titled debut.
• WATERS’ It Might All Be OK EP.
• Little May’s self-titled EP.
• J Fernandez’s Memorize Now EP.