In the summer of 1993 a young unknown gospel musician from Fort Worth, Texas, released—to little initial fanfare—his self-titled debut album, Kirk Franklin & The Family. Wildly accepted and embraced almost immediately by the masses, it went on to spend 100 weeks at the top of Billboard magazine’s gospel charts, while also crossing over to the R&B side, and becoming in the process the first gospel album ever to sell over a million units.
But despite that auspicious, record-shattering entrance, the world had seen only the smallest foreshadowing of the work of a man who, in less than a decade, would come to stand with the likes of gospel royalty Thomas A. Dorsey, James Cleveland, and Andrae Crouch as one of the pivotal, defining forces of 20th-century-and-beyond gospel music.
With several stops along the way (to write and produce hits for 1NC and to score and write/produce the major motion picture soundtrack to Kingdom Come) separating him from his own last solo album, 1998’s two-million-plus selling Nu Nation Project, Kirk Franklin returns with the new, mind-boggling solo release, The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin. The album is more than aptly named.
Displaying Kirk’s absolutely breath-taking grasp of the full breadth and depth of nearly all genres of contemporary and traditional music—secular as well as sacred—it leaps so far above and beyond even his greatest previous work that it could be thought of indeed as a daring but ever-engrossing rebirth of one of modern music’s already most fertile minds. With dramatic spoken narratives laid atop cinematic soundscapes, interspersed between 11 Kirk originals (with help from the late Rich Mullins on "He Reigns") of profound lyrical substance, Kirk continues to speak to millions of people of all walks and persuasions.
But with a title that clearly portends evolution, and images of Kirk as a young boy on the packaging, it’s clear that there are some serious philosophical changes going on in this “rebirth” as well.
“I can look over my life and career now and see both seasons of success as well as struggles and pitfalls,” says Kirk, “and God has allowed it all. It’s all done with the purpose of the Lord drawing you closer to Him—getting you closer to where He wants you to be. And it can be painful sometimes until you reach the point where you can see it’s all been for a purpose, and that’s a true moment of awakening and rebirth.
“No artist can honestly say they don’t care if their work is promoted and taken to the people in an effective way or not,” he continues. “Of course I want my label to employ all the resources they have—in the honorable and Godly ways in which they always operate—to make this album heard. The difference is that I have a sort of `been-there-done-that’ attitude now, but that’s not cynical or arrogant. It’s only to say that I’ve been blessed with some very high highs, some very low lows, as well as some in-betweens to go with them. I see myself getting off the merry-go-round of worrying about whether I can top myself, or striving for commercial gain above all else. The rebirth concept and images of me as a boy are very significant. That’s youth. That’s innocence. That’s the boy who loved the Lord and sang to Him purely out of love before ANY other considerations came into the picture. I’m not rejecting the realities of marketing and business. I, personally—Kirk—am going back to that place of purity that that little boy lived as a natural matter of course.”
Kirk has always been celebrated for weaving seemingly disparate musical influences—R&B, modern rock, hip-hop, pop, jazz, traditional gospel—into a seamless fabric, creating his own singular style and sound that truly transcends any and all boundaries of genre, race, denomination or societal background. And while the consistency of his growth in broadening the very definition of “gospel music” has never waned, The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin reaches levels of self-realization and brilliance surpassing all that has preceded it. And that is saying… a lot.
A collection of back-to-back tours-de-force, featuring a panoply of some of today’s hottest gospel artists—including Donnie McClurkin, Richard Smallwood, Crystal Lewis, Pastor Shirley Caesar, Jaci Valesquez, and the late traditional gospel great, Willie Neal Johnson and others, makes the act of choosing highlights on the album almost superfluous. But still, The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin does indeed harbor moments that rise from tremendous to truly transcendent.
A powerful traditional/contemporary choral arrangement on “Caught Up” elicits a show-stopping performance from gospel diva Pastor Shirley Caesar. “911” is a wrenching, yet ultimately uplifting dialogue over a punchy bottom end and soulful backing vocals, between Kirk and Bishop T.D. Jakes—recently proclaimed in a Time magazine cover story as “the Next Billy Graham”—in which Kirk dramatically pours out fears of the post 9-11 attack on America, as well as the perils and daily struggles of ordinary life, receiving stirring comfort from Jakes, who, as Kirk’s fellow Dallas, Texas, neighbor, has indeed served as a mentor in his “little brother’s” life.
Another powerhouse original included here in both a studio and live version, is Kirk’s hymn/ballad collaboration on “The Blood Song” with guest slots on the live version from Alvin Slaughter and gospel greats Crystal Lewis, Donnie McClurkin and Jaci Velasquez on the studio version. Running a gamut from the irresistible good-time funk of “Brighter Day” and a Latin-flavored "He Reigns," which contains portions of Rich Mullin's “Awesome God"—to the punchy gospel/R&B of “Lookin’Out” and a bonus cut with DC Talk’s tobymac that carries a hard-rocking edge reminiscent of ‘90s modern rock icons, Nirvana, Kirk hits home with a musical range that is nothing short of dazzling.
Born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, Kirk, as a child and adolescent, was no stranger to both pain and the comfort of the Lord. Never knowing his father, and abandoned in infancy by his mother, he was raised by a devoted aunt. A strict, church-going Baptist, she saw to it that her charge was well-versed in the Christian faith from his earliest years. The youngster not only thrived spiritually in the church environment, he displayed early on prodigious musical gifts. Recognizing Kirk’s artistic anointing, his aunt collected and resold aluminum cans to raise money for her nephew to take piano lessons when he was only four.
The funding for that instruction was money well-spent, for Franklin was a natural musician who could sight read and play by ear with equal facility, and at the tender age of 11, was leading the Mt. Rose Baptist Church adult choir in Fort Worth. Despite his strong background in the church, Franklin turned rebellious in his teens, trading in the values and morals on which he’d been weaned for a life of violence, intimidation and larceny. It took the shooting death of a close friend to jolt Kirk, then 15, into a realization of the error of his ways, and back into the safe fold of the church where he began composing songs and recording demo tapes with a passion.
Nurtured on a steady diet of traditional gospel music, Kirk had also kept an ear open to the secular R&B, rock and pop music of the early and mid-‘80s, and he absorbed the best of both musical worlds. Along with the power and passion of innumerable classic gospel artists, he was impacted by the sounds of an eclectic, far-reaching mix of R&B/funk and rock icons, from Cameo, George Clinton and Rick James to rockers U2, INXS and Depeche Mode, among others. Little did he know at the time how mightily the Lord was preparing to use him, and all his talents and influences, to accomplish great things in His service.
In the early ‘90s he formed a 17-member vocal ensemble of neighborhood friends and associates, dubbed “The Family". His life took a dramatic turn in 1992 when Vicki Mack-Lataillade, President and CEO of the then-fledgling Gospo Centric Records, listened to one of his tapes and, amazed by what she heard, quickly signed him to a recording contract. Since then, a decade of the greatest commercial successes and brilliant, groundbreaking artistry and inventiveness ever seen and heard in gospel music has followed.
“It’s taken me these 10 years, and longer to fully realize that keeping everything we do focused on the love of God is what music, and life, is all about,” Kirk concludes. “And it’s kind of ironic to be this many years into the pilgrimage only to realize that’s the way it was at the start, still is, and always will be.”
And that simple but profound realization is the very heart of The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin. Though it rides on a sharp cutting edge that gives new meaning to “contemporary,” this landmark work is no crass “career adjustment” to accommodate the fickle tastes of the masses that is the death knell of so many acts that flash through the public eye for only a few, fleeting moments. It is a man of the people, a minister to the many, and a musician of the masses, coming a long, full circle to a place where fads no longer figure into the formula, and timeless truths stand steady and secure, forever.