With his popular relevance at low ebb, DJ Quik retains a musical restlessness that no doubt makes him the envy of his age bracket. The Midnight Life is the third album in his most recent career phase, following 2009′s Blaqkout, with Kurupt, and 2011′s The Book of David. Creatively, it’s on par with the previous two, a blend of unpredictability (the album opens with a banjo), unusual juxtapositions (the same song includes the vocals of ’80s R&B legend El Debarge) and nods to Quik’s historical comfort food: the old-school disco and funk rhythms that helped forge his sound. As much as Quik values tradition and craft, he lives for originality and novelty — the impulses that make The Midnight Life a rare success for an artist in his autumnal phase.
With Quik, it’s all about layers and contradictions, a fine balance between self-imposed restriction and artistic freedom that makes his work so engaging. As much as funk is in his DNA, he doesn’t make funk. He’s an irreverent spirit (“I’m so cool that I could nut ice cream” from opener “That N****r’s Crazy”) in a framework of moral responsibility (as he says on “That Getter”: “School is free, life after that is not/ Asphalt pavement is cold, tension in jail is hot”). He’s a deeply serious artist with an equally deep appreciation for life’s Dionysian pleasures; closer “Fuck All Night” is the record’s most immediately appealing song. But even there, he laments a changed world with a message about the state of R&B: “Now we don’t even got Soul Train/ It got no room to grow like a swole brain.” In contrast with his last album Book of David, which had a darker, personal undertone, his rap style here tends toward the comedic and clever. But he still twists on a dime from self-affirming boasts to laments of a changed world, tapping directly to emotional truth as if there were no other option.
The Midnight Life is not a perfect record; for a sequel to 1997′s transcendent Marvin Gaye-inspired “El’s Interlude,” the El Debarge feature “El’s Interlude 2″ is underwhelming in its brevity. Quik’s son, David Blake Jr., has strides to make before he’s tapped the same creative and emotional wellspring as his father. But these concerns fold up in the shadow of “Bacon’s Groove,” the languid workout for his longtime guitarist Robert Bacon, Jr. Or the sparkling “Life Jacket,” where Quik manages to steal the record from both Suga Free and Dom Kennedy, announcing a mission statement both musical (“Cuz if you ain’t with the now, that makes you way back when/ And you can keep all of that retro-dated action”) and lyrical (“I’m rhyming, you rambling”). On The Midnight Life the appeal isn’t so much that Quik is an innovator (in 2014, that might be a stretch) or a genius — although that he most certainly is. A quarter-century into his career, DJ Quik continues to push himself, refusing to rest, and it’s something for which it’s tough not to be grateful.