Ronald Isley, lead singer of the extraordinarily successful Isley Brothers, will turn 70 years old next year. He was still in his teens when the Isleys scored their first hit with “Shout” in 1959. This year he released his first solo album, Mr. I. The collection of ten songs tries a little too hard to keep Isley sounding current, with a guest appearance from rapper T.I. and an annoying reliance on leaden drum machines. But regardless of his advancing age, Isley still has one of the most expressive falsettos in the business.
The lead single “No More” is the finest moment on the album. Isley’s supple vocal renders the lyric touching despite clunkers like, “I found the ticket and you’re the lottery.” Honestly, with six credited songwriters you’d think someone could’ve improved upon “I love you like my favorite TV show.” But this ode to a longtime lover really does stand out, due also in large part to the prominent acoustic guitar playing.
Especially in light of the recent announcement of her battle with cancer, Aretha Franklin’s duet with Isley on “You’ve Got a Friend” is another winning moment. This isn’t Franklin’s first experience with the Carole King classic, having recorded it as part of a medley on her 1972 album Amazing Grace. The song has been recorded by dozens of artists over the years. But here we have two of the greatest voices in popular music blending together for yet another moving performance. The two go off script for a few improvised asides towards the end of the number, alluding to an enduring friendship stretching back many years.
Unfortunately, the rest of the album isn’t nearly up to the standard of those two tracks. The album opener, “Take It How You Want It,” is a weak song with no real hook to speak of. The aforementioned T.I. guest appearance on “Put Your Money On Me” is unnecessary. That particular track strains to fit in with modern R&B production styles, as does much of the rhythm programming in general. “Supposed To Do” and “I Need You” aren’t exactly bad, just rather generic slow jams. The album closer “You Had Me At Hello” is more than a little mawkish.
On a more positive note, “If I Lose My Woman” and “What I Miss the Most” are much more effective romantic ballads. They benefit from simpler arrangements, allowing the delicacy of Isley’s vocals to remain front and center. And that’s precisely the selling point of Mr. I, one of the most complex, nuanced, and seductive voices of the past fifty years.