Sanctified music in America has had no greater voice over the past two decades than that of Kirk Franklin, the native Texan who revolutionized the gospel choir. Franklin also almost single-handedly brought contemporary gospel music to forward-thinking R&B radio programmers. In the process, this visionary vocalist, musician, songwriter, arranger, producer — and, of course, choir director — has amassed 18 RIAA gold and platinum records, 10 of which went to #1 on the Billboard gospel charts. For his work, he has earned seven Grammy awards, 12 Gospel Music Association (GMA) Dove Awards and 35 Stellar Awards, the most won by any artist.
In celebration of the 20th anniversary in 2012 of Franklin’s founding of his first major choir recording group, The Family, the first full-length career retrospective, has been released. “The Essential Kirk Franklin” is a 28-song double CD overview with tracks with the Family on Franklin’s debut album (“Kirk Franklin and The Family”) all the way through his most current studio album of 2011 (“Hello Fear”). From the Sunday morning joy of tracks like his hits “Why We Sing” and “Now Behold The Lamb,” to the block party vibes of “Looking For You” and “Stomp,” this “Essential” set proves why Franklin has dominated and set the standard for contemporary Black gospel music.
Franklin’s humble beginnings are well known to his fans and followers, who can tell you how he was abandoned by his birth mother and raised in the church in Fort Worth by his great aunt, Gertrude. At age 11, he famously became music director of the Mt. Rose Baptist Church. His teen years were wild, but he eventually returned to the church and an early association with the Dallas-Fort Worth Mass Choir at age 20. Two years later, he founded The Family, whose debut album was recorded as a demo in 1992, and released with minimal production in 1993. “Kirk Franklin And The Family” was a phenomenon that set the gospel world on its ear. Recorded live in Ft. Worth, every track was written and arranged by Franklin, who features nearly all the 17 members of the choir on various tracks. The album spent nearly two years on the Billboard Gospel chart, including 42 weeks at #1 with “Why We Sing” being voted at the Dove Awards as the “Traditional Gospel Song of the Year.” Then, nearly two years after the albums release, “Why We Sing” was picked up for R&B radio airplay.
Because of his magnetic personality and immense talent, Franklin has collaborated with some of the greatest artists in pop, R&B and gospel fields, from Stevie Wonder, to Marvin L. Winans and Cheryl “Salt” James (of the rap group Salt-N-Pepa). “With his hip-hop threads and a low fade hair cut in an age of Jheri curls, [Franklin] has stood apart from any successful gospel artist at the time and epitomized the urban urchin fighting to overcome his circumstances,” writes Bil Carpenter in the liner notes. “His tunes have helped millions make the uneasy transition from puberty to adulthood while being in the world but not of it, as the Bible commands. His songs revolve around everyday issues that speak to the faithful in a frank manner they know first hand.”