Ronald Isley probably belongs in every rock and soul musical hall of fame that exists to praise those who have created great tunes during the post-World War II era. He’s been part of the scene since the ‘50s, as a teenager with his siblings in the Isley Brothers. But rather than count down the list of Ron and his brothers’ many accomplishments—and there are many—the question of the day is can the 69-year-old musician still kick it? After all, he’s had his share of health problems (including a stroke) and personal issues (including a stint in prison for tax evasion). The evidence on this, his first solo album after more than five decades in the business, is a resounding “Yes!” Mr. I convincingly croons his way through ten sexy and sultry slow jams with an erotic flair and tenderness that makes one want to grab a lover, turn off the lights, and indulge in intimate private behavior.
The music on the new album looks both backwards to the classic grooves of the past, and forward to the modern urban artistry of the present. That’s why it makes sense that the Queen of Soul joins him on Carole King’s mellowicious “You’ve Got a Friend”, as well as fellow traveler T.I. on the more modern production of “Put Your Money on Me”. The Isleys have long showed their sensitive side, as their hit version of Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” back in the day revealed, but here both Isley and Franklin let their freak folk sides out by singing in floatingly high tones about always being there for each other. Meanwhile, the T.I. collaboration showcases the earthly sounds of Mr. I as the two men boast about the more material aspects of what they would do for another human being. The duo may get caught up in their brags, but that’s all part of the game. Hyperbole is just another way of showing sincerity in this context.
While these songs call attention to themselves because of the guest vocalists, some of the best moments recall the classic grooves of romantic masters like Teddy Pendergrass and Al Green as Isley croons about how much he desires his woman, what he would buy for her, what he would do to and for her, etc. Mr. I has wants. Mr. I has needs. But he’s not selfish. He’s willing to do anything for love. One imagines there would not be a dry seat in the house after hearing cuts like “What I Miss the Most”, “No More”, “Dance for Me”, and the bulk of material on the disc. Mr. I’s voice can be compared with those hot embers in a fireplace on winter’s night that smolder before breaking into unexpected fire. The heat at the heart is already there, just waiting for the passion to ignite.
The new album begins with a declaration that Isley is back, but he’s never really gone away. The music that he and his brothers have made has influenced everyone from the Beatles (who covered the band’s “Twist and Shout” back in the day) and the stable of Motown artists (where the Isleys were associated for awhile), to more contemporary acts like Beyonce and Drake. But listening to the original always beats hearing what follows. Ron Isley’s new paeans to love reveal he’s still got it.