Someone searching for a living example of the phrase "soul survivor" would need to look no further than Ronald Isley. As both a solo performer and a front man for the iconic family band, The Isley Brothers, his signature croon has been a constant presence on the pop and R&B charts for the last 50 years, thanks to seminal songs like "Shout," "It's Your Thing," "That Lady," "Voyage to Atlantis," "Harvest For the World," "Between the Sheets" and "Footsteps In the Dark," to name just a few.
Want further proof? His enviable longevity and remarkable resume aside, consider his connections to the new school generation, thanks to the exhaustively-sampled Isley Brothers catalog and collaborations with R. Kelly that created an enduring alter ego, the powerful and pimptastic Mr. Biggs (see "Down Low," "Contagious," "Friend of Mine [Remix]"). He's not exactly shrugging back into that persona for his first-ever solo-release, Mr. I, but the Cincinnati, OH native does combine his classic approach---equal parts sweetness and swagger--- with a cool and contemporary twist that, more often than not, delights rather than disappoints.
Like 2006's Baby Makin' Music, there are various board controllers in the mix (Tricky Stewart, Kajun, Song Dynasty, Greg Curtis and Jerry ‘Wonda' Duplessis from the Fugees crew), with Mr. Isley and Antonio "L.A." Reid at the helm as Executive Producers. Thanks to the collaborators' reverence of and familiarity with the veteran performer, none of the songs feel out-of-place or artificial, so even the playa-playa moments, like the straight-up carnal opener, "Take It How You Want It" and the table-talk-turned-table-dance ode, "Dance For Me," are...well, 100% Isley.
Mr. I takes care to blend both mackin' (for his younger fans) and monogamy (for the old heads): "No More," its first single, pays tribute to a woman who's held him down over the years and cannot be replaced: "So I'm never gonna let you go, they don't make them like you no more/it's like a record in the studio, they don't make them like you no more." "If I Lose My Woman" tenderly explains how sprung he is and how he can go without anything but her love: "My sun would no longer shine, my poem would no longer rhyme/my pen would no longer write, if I lose my woman." Ladies will adore "Supposed To Do," which echoes Babyface's "Soon As I Get Home" and details all of the love-inspired luxuries that he feels his queen is entitled to: "You're supposed to have, a stone worth half a million, you're supposed to have, matching ‘his-and-her' Benzes/Who's gonna get it for you Baby, who else got you shopping on the daily/Big Daddy, that's who, ain't that what I'm supposed to do?"
Some selections, while not exactly ill-fitting, may earn a side-eye or two: "Put Your Money On Me" plays like a soundtrack for VIP while bottles pop and crisp Benjamins flutter to the floor, crediting the rap cameo to T.I. (although it doesn't quite sound like him) and providing the CD's sole up tempo groove. "You Had Me At Hello" is sweet, if a bit sluggish, and the only song that comes close to hinting at separation is "What I Miss The Most," which sounds more seductive than sorrowful. An acoustic, folksy feel is lent to the Carole King cover, "You've Got a Friend," a warm pairing with another enduring Rock And Roll Hall of Fame peer, Aretha Franklin. The song makes the listeners feel as though they're overhearing a merry stroll down Memory Lane, especially since the verses melt into adlibs about Ree-Ree meeting the Isleys back in 1962 and offering a saucy reminder: "Ronnie, save yourself, there ain't no loyalty today." (Hmm, wonder what that's in reference to?)
Holding firm at 69 and awaiting a well-deserved tribute alongside Anita Baker at the upcoming Soul Train Awards, Ron Isley's solo debut is proof that this time-tested tenor has emerged from some of the most harrowing trials in life with his artistry and ambition intact. Age ain't nothin' but a number, and as Mr. Biggs has proven time and again, it would be a mistake to sleep on the reach and power of Mr. I. Recommended.
By Melody Charles