Let no one claim that Ron Isley doesn’t know his audience. When the front man and his brothers broke from Motown in the late ’60s, they experimented with a few styles before settling on a combination of guitar pop and slow ballads. Over time the pop songs grew longer and wilder (think “That Lady” or “Fight the Power”), while the ballads matured into bass-heavy, ultra-romantic suites sultry enough to make Barry White gasp, “Enough!” As the 1970s drew to a close and the other Isleys started to disperse, Ron let the ballads take center stage, eventually turning each new album into a long, relaxing make-out soundtrack. Baby Makin’ Music boils that formula down to its essence, and the result is the best Isley Brothers album since 1996’s Mission to Please.
One reason for this: R. Kelly’s influence has been trimmed down considerably. Kelly played a Svengali role in the last two Isley Brothers records, penning their (admittedly brilliant) 2001 single “Contagious” and basically turning 2003’s Body Kiss into a side project for himself. Kelly’s been benched for the most part and only grabs a mic for the hilarious “Blast Off”. (It’s a sex song wrapped in an oh-so-subtle space shuttle metaphor. You’re surprised?) He deserves some credit for getting the Isley Brothers back in vogue with R&B labels and fans, but his repetitive hooks and dull arrangements had started to drag on the band’s sound. With co-writers like Jermaine Dupri taking over more of the reins, the old Isley sound of Between the Sheets is back. Ernie Isley’s piercing guitar licks, invisible on Body Kiss, are fitted to these songs like new rims on Cadillacs.
That’s not to say this record retreads the pre-Kelly Isley sound. These arrangements share at least 90% of their DNA with the other songs on urban radio, by artists young enough to be Ron’s sons or grandsons. (The great man turns 65 this month.) Besides Ernie’s guitar and Ron’s vocals — which sound like a 30-year old recorded them — what distinguishes these songs are the strong melodies and wink-wink lyrics. Ron crafted a musical personality, “Mr. Biggs,” when this iteration of the Isley Brothers first started recording with R. Kelly. Mr. Biggs, with his natty suits and expensive-looking canes, actually has a sense of humor about his lovemaking. On “Gotta Be with You” he tells a new conquest that she’s breaking some kind of record for him: “Been in the game since ’59 / Had a whole lot of women at that time.” One of the most upbeat tracks is called “Forever Mackin'” — coming from the guy who recorded “Shout” almost five decades ago, that means something.
There are some forgettable songs mixed in with the hits, but the album hangs together well at the perfect procreative length of 46 minutes. The strongest tracks are the three that include a writing credit for Ron. They don’t contain any age jokes, or any silly sex talk; there’s nothing but class in “Just Came Here to Chill”, “Heaven Hooked Us Up”, and “You Helped Me Write This Song”. With producers who know how to package their sound, and with Ron and Ernie’s skills performing at this level, the Isley Brothers are going to stay relevant for a long, long time.