Mr. Biggs is not going away. Despite Ronald Isley’s long credentials as one of the most distinguished soul voices ever, he now takes backseat to a hip-hop generation caricature of himself. Though Mr. Biggs has made appearances before in the videos of R. Kelly, Kelly Price and most recently B2K, he was formally introduced as Ronald Isley’s alter-ego on Eternal (2001). Much to the surprise of just about everyone in the recording industry, Eternal moved 223,000 units in its first week of release. No one of the Isley Brother’s generation of soul singers could ever expect that kind of commercial payday—even Aretha Franklin. The Isley Brothers are to traditional R&B audiences, what Aerosmith has become for rock audiences: a multi-generational draw. And for this we have to thank Mr. Biggs, who returns on Body Kiss the follow-up to Eternal.
Whereas Eternal featured board work by a range of folks, including Rafael Saadiq, Jam and Lewis, A Touch of Jazz (Vidal Davis and Andre Harris), Angela Winbush and R. Kelly, virtually all of the tracks on Body Kiss are produced by Kelly—the self-anointed “pied piper” of R&B (talk about alter-ego’s gone awry). Despite the on-going drama of Kelly’s indictment on charges of child-pornography, 2003 has been a banner year for the singer-songwriter-producer-arranger. Besides the phenomenal success of his release Chocolate Factory, Kelly has scored hits writing and producing for Nivea (“Laundromat”), B2K (“Girlfriend”), and Ginuwine (“Hell Yeah”). The decision by the Isley’s to hand over the reigns of Body Kiss to Kelly is telling. While Kelly has been almost singularly responsible for the creation of Mr. Biggs, “Contagious” (from Eternal) was Kelly’s only production credit for the Isleys to date. Like the appearance of “Mr. Biggs” in the video for Whitney Houston’s “One of Those Days” (the song samples the Isley’s “Between the Sheets”), Ronald Isley’s willingness to close ranks around Kelly reads like the an old-school admonishment to morally imbued critics of Kelly (including this one) that he’s seen “shit” much worse than child pornography and that need to cut boy-wonder a little slack.
That said, much of Body Kiss feels as though Kelly phoned this one in. Two of the tracks on the disc were initially recorded by Kelly for the ill-fated Loveland recording. The opening track “Superstar” sounds like one of the tracks that producers of the John Singleton film Shaft must have rejected, when Kelly submitted tracks for the soundtrack recording. The other Loveland intended track, “Prize Possession”, is one of the best tracks of the recording, riffing on the spacious chord progressions that mark great Marvin Gaye recordings like “What’s Going On”, “God Is Love” and “Mercy, Mercy, Me (The Ecology)”.
Snoop and Kelly (listed as The Pied Piper) join the fray on “I Like”, trading on the amped-up “Fiesta” groove that has become Kelly’s signature up-tempo sound, as witnessed by the continued rotation of “Fiesta” on urban radio and tracks like Ginuwine’s “Hell Yeah” and the remix of Kelly’s “Ignition”. The groove is also replicated on the remix (part 2) of “What Would You Do?”, the lead single from Body Kiss. As a producer and artist these tracks represents some of Kelly’s most bland musical impulses though not surprisingly his most commercial.
It is that lead single, “What Would You Do?” that speaks volumes about the commercial interest in Mr. Biggs, which from the beginning has little to do with Ronald Isley’s lilting falsetto, but has everything to do with a vision of the “bling-bling, playa, playa patriarch” still flossin’ well past retirement. This vision is of course appealing to every “bling-bling, playa, play patriarch” in training and those women, who want to believe that this particular vision of black patriarchy remains a stable and viable possibility in a world in which traditional gender roles are in flux. In this regard, Mr. Biggs encompasses a particularly potent and regressive nostalgia.
Virtually all of Mr. Biggs “hit” performances in music videos, like Kelly’s “Down Low” and the Isley’s “Contagious” and to a lesser extent “What Would You Do?” are constructed around the narrative of the benevolent patriarch, whose material gifts are scorned by the young women he is partnered with, as they pursue the (freaky) affection of a younger version of Mr. Biggs in Mr. Kelly (presented as a caricature of a caricature). While the possibility of post-down low confrontation and the inevitable Old E/testosterone driven retribution (ghetto penis envy) is what brings us all to the dance, when the spunk is cleared, and Mr. Biggs and Mr. Kelly stand in their requisite post-coital glory, we all want to know what kind of demonic things is Mr. Biggs going to say or do, to that young woman he’s about to kick out his house.
Tracks from Body Kiss like “Busted” and “Showdown Vol. 1” (a second version is on Kelly’s Chocolate Factory) are literally fueled by the rage that Mr. Biggs has for these women. Like the title suggest, “Busted” is about catching home-girly out on the proverbial DL limb. As sis (performed by JS) twist and shifts her story, Mr. Biggs indulges her, only to hit back at her in the chorus: “Go up stairs pack your bags / While you at it call a cab / It’s obvious you’re playing around / Go upstairs and get your shit and get the fuck up out of here.” When sis ask at the end of the song what she’s supposed to do, Mr. Biggs responds in a Sam Cooke-ish/Rhett Butler manner “Frankly darling, I don’t give a damn”. (It’s a real Daniel Patrick Moynihan moment, for the real playas up in here). While “Showdown” is ostensibly about Mr. Biggs trying to track down Kelly for doin’ the do with sis, the song is more focused on the inadequacies felt by the aging “bling-bling, playa, playa patriarch” (“What’s he got, that I ain’t got a lot of / Besides who is he to lay up in covers in my home”). When Mr. Biggs sings “No let’s not forget her, Mrs. Can’t Trust / I was wrong about her ass, she’s nothing like my mother . . . took her off these streets, gave her everything/ the only one who believed in all her dream and she did me wrong” it is unclear whether he reserves his greatest rage for the brotha doin’ the do (game recognize game and like Mr. Biggs said in “Contagious”, you lookin’ familiar) or sis who got the boot.
Unfortunately, too much the production and songwriting on Body Kiss is focused on the drama of Mr. Biggs and rightfully so, since it is the only reason why the 60-plus year-old Ronald Isley has any commercial cachet. There are bright moment though. Isley and Kelly and in soulful sync on the good-rockin’ tonight groove of “Keep It Flowin”. “Take a Ride” is the project’s finest ballad—Isley’s voice is in classic form and Kelly is at his understated best behind the boards. “Take a Ride” is the only one in which Ernie Isley’s guitar work gets any play and like his solo on the song, the classic moments on Body Kiss are few and fleeting.
Old fans of The Isley Brothers will not be retiring their copies of 3+3 (1973), The Heat Is On (1975), Harvest for the World (1976) and may in fact feel it necessary to purchase additional copies (3+3 was just re-issued) to counter the cultural blasphemy that Mr. Biggs represents. For Mr. Biggs’s young fans, the sad reality is that he his little more that a nostalgic caricature of a pimp-stick patriarch, who has nothing to do with the legendary figure of Ronald Isley and the influential family musical group that he has fronted for more than 40 years.