Said to be the best-selling gospel singer in music history, Kirk Franklin was well into his career when he released his first solo album, “Hero,” in 2005. He had founded two large gospel choirs – The Family and God’s Property – as well as the vocal group One Nation Crew. In 2002, he issued “The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin,” which, as the title suggested, announced a new phase for the singer and composer. It came together in “Hero.”
Franklin was a central figure in the rise of what’s known as Contemporary R&B Gospel, which draws from hip-hop, R&B and soul, and he moved beyond traditional gospel for collaborators. Contributors to “Hero” included the gospel singers Yolanda Adams and Dorinda Clark-Cole; Christian rapper TobyMac; Sonny Sandoval of P.O.D, the Christian metal group; gospel singer and ace keyboardist Tye Tribbett; and Stevie Wonder, who sang and played his instantly recognizable chromatic harmonica in the funky, horn-powered “Why.”
Franklin’s social and political point of view informed his lyrics. “Hero” opened with a version of “America the Beautiful” sung by African orphans who had lost their parents, according to Franklin in voiceover, to “war, famine and AIDS,” three topics he addressed repeatedly on the album. “Let It Go,” with an interlude drawn from Tears for Fears’s “Shout,” revisited Franklin’s struggle after he was abandoned by his mother as a young child – and how faith provided the way toward a productive life. In “Imagine Me,” a female choir sang of the satisfaction of coming to love oneself: “Imagine me loving what I see when the mirror looks at me…Bring strong and not letting people break me down.”
Another reoccurring theme: the joy Franklin found in God’s light. “Looking for Love” bounced along with a funk guitar, popping bass, warm brass and a spirited female choir, as did “Could’ve Been,” which featured Tribbett and J. Moss. Both tracks draw from ‘80s pop-funk. The title track lifted up from a nylon-string guitar and piano and featured the testimony of people who had survived, perhaps miraculously, injury and disease. Drummer Terry Baker, who excels throughout, gave the performance rocket-like power as Clarke-Cole and Franklin trade lines above the choir.
“Hero” verified Franklin’s decision to delve deep into a new form of gospel under his own name. It sold well more than one million copies, topped Billboard’s Christian and gospel charts, and received the Grammy for Best Contemporary Gospel Album. (The track “Imagine Me” won the Grammy for Best Gospel Song.) Since “Hero,” he has released three additional solo albums and toured several times. Kirk Franklin remains the king of contemporary gospel music.