As I write this, there’s a major R. Kelly moment happening in the public discourse and it feels really weird to celebrate anything that man has ever been a part of. Although I guess that makes this moment no different from a million other moments that have occurred between 1994 and now. It should go without saying that writing about “Contagious” makes me feel a little icky. But I’ve said several times that you can be an absolute shit canoe as a person and still make enjoyable art, and Kelly isn’t the only part of the puzzle that is “Contagious”.
“Contagious” was released in summer 2001, but the song’s story really begins in 1995, when Kelly got The Isley Brothers (Ronald and Ernie) to sing and play guitar on his song “Down Low (Nobody Has To Know)”. The brothers also appeared in the song’s dramatic video, with Ronald playing a mob boss named Mr. Francis Biggs. The song/video combo brought the Isleys back into the pop top ten for the first time since the mid ‘70s and started a surprising career renaissance. In 1996, The Isleys (with bassist Marvin Isley rejoining after a decade’s absence) released Mission to Please, which featured contributions from Kelly, Keith Sweat, Babyface and more. It became their first gold album since 1983’s era-ending Between The Sheets. Isley and Kelly became constant collaborators, later bringing Kelly Price a gold single (and reprising the Mr. Biggs character) with the remix to her debut single “Friend of Mine”.
Marvin’s ill health caused him to retire, leaving Ronald and Ernie as a duo, and 2001’s Eternal was the follow-up to Mission To Please. The album again featured a ton of superstar power-Jill Scott and Raphael Saadiq were among the luminaries who joined the brothers. And yes, there were more appearances by R. Kelly, led by “Contagious”, the album’s debut single and the Isleys’ first top 40 hit as lead artists since 1980. Mr. Biggs arrives home one night, and realizes that his lady is out. He tries to two-way page her, but gets no response. He heads back out to look for her, stopping off at her mother’s house. Still no sign. Upon arriving home for the second time, he flips on the TV, then is startled by some noise. He turns the TV down and Bam! Turns out that his lady (played by Chante Moore) is doing the nasty with R. Kelly. A (sung) confrontation ensues. Nothing I can write will do this justice, so I’m just going to leave the actual lyrics here:
Isley: What the hell is goin’ on between the sheets in my home?
Moore: Baby wait let me explain before you start to point your cane.
Isley: Girl I’m bout to have a fit
Kelly: “oh its bout to be some shit!”
How did I get in to this? Should have never came home with this bitch!
Isley: Low down dirty woman, back to where you come from
Moore: “but baby wait”
Isley: but wait my ass
Hit the streets your ass is grass!
Kelly: Now Mister Biggs before you done
Isley: “Wait how you know my name son?”
Moore: “Honey wait I was gonna tell ya”
Isley: “ Ooh, this cat looks real familiar”
Hmmm?!?! Now don’t I know you from somewhere a long time ago?
Kelly: No no I don’t think so.
Isley: Yea yea, I feel I know you brother very well.
Kelly: No No you’re mistaking me for somebody else.
Isley (interjecting): “SHUT UP!” Can’t you see two men are talkin’?
Isley: Thought I told yo ass to get to walkin’!
Now I think ya’ll better leave this place,
Cause I’m about to (in ultra-creamy falsetto) catch a ca-yase.
“I think I need to leave this place/’cause I’m about to catch a case” is definitely something I’ve thought when I’m in a social setting with people who make me uncomfortable.
This section of “Contagious” brings me indescribable amounts of joy to this day. It’s so fucking silly, and there’s no way an exchange like this should work in a modern-day pop song (or any pop song, really). It’s so good that even the stink of R. Kelly’s involvement can’t damage it.