Like Andre Crouch in the 70s and the Winans in the 80s, Kirk Franklin was the most important Gospel artist of the 90s and a principal force in the genre's mass acceptance during its most successful decade. An important link between Gospel and the emerging hip-hop movement in secular music, Franklin made Gospel music relevant to young urban listeners and in the process created opportunity for a new generation of Gospel artists.
Raised in Dallas by an aunt after the abandonment by his mother, Franklin showed an amazing musical talent as a child, and was playing piano and leading his church choir before he was a teenager. With one foot squarely in the streets, he rebelled against the church as a teen until the murder of a friend brought him back with a renewed interest and humility. He then formed the choir "The Family" and began writing and performing prolifically around Dallas. He was "discovered" by Gospo-Centric Records president Vicki Mack-Lataillade in 1992 and the next year released his debut album, Kirk Franklin and the Family. The album wasn't like anything else on Gospel radio, a savvy combination of urban beats and a blunt, decidedly unflowery religious message. The disc was met by a mixture of derision and celebration in the church community, bemoaned by some as an earthly dilution of the Gospel and by others as a relevant application of the Gospel message to the struggling youth of the time. Its supporters far outnumbered its detractors and the album quickly rose to #1 and stayed there for an astounding two years.
If his debut won over the Gospel crowd, Franklin's 1996 album Whatcha Lookin' For conquered the rest of the musical world, hitting the top five of the Pop and Soul charts and launching "Stomp," the decade's most successful Gospel song. He followed it up with the top ten God's Property album in 1997, and his 1998 Nu Nation Project resulted in a spotlight Grammy Award performance with Bono, Crystal Lewis, Mary J. Blige and Gerald LeVert (subbing for R Kelly) on the Best Song nominated balled "Lean On Me."
It took four years and a personal struggle with pornography before Franklin returned, recommitted to his church and his family, with The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin, another crossover smash.
In 2004, Franklin formed Fo Yo Soul Entertainment, an organization that consolidated his growing entertainment empire and combined it with youth outreach programs - a centerpiece of his ministry. His first album to follow its creation was 2005's Hero, another solid outing that included "Looking For You," a reworking of Patrice Rushen's "Haven't You Heard" that became Franklin's biggest hit in a half decade. That year he also played a leading role in delivering the wonderful soundtrack to the movie The Gospel.
Franklin has continued to record with less frequency over the past half decade, hitting the charts with The Fight of My Life in 2007 and returning four years later with Hello Fear.
The popularity of Gospel music has spiked over the past decade, largely due to the incorporation of modern R&B and hip-hop musical elements, and it is tough to overstate the role that Franklin played in broadening the scope of Christian music and the pioneering role he played. In fact, it is tough to imagine the creative freedom and commercial success enjoyed by modern greats from Tonex and Mary Mary to today's hitmaking producers like PAJAM were it not for Franklin's unprecedented success. For that as well as his music he has secured his place one of the most important Gospel artists of his generation.
By Chris Rizik