Sounds like … hip-hop and 1970s pop-influenced gospel for fans of Franklin and contemporaries Tye Tribbett and G.A. or Natalie Wilson and S.O.P.At a glance … the originality and freshness of Hero may make it more of a "rebirth" than Franklin's 2002 album of that name.Track ListingIntro Looking For You Hero Interlude Let It Go The Process Imagine Me Could've Been Better Afterwhile Brokenhearted Without You Keep Your Head Why First Love The Appeal Brokenhearted (Reprise) Interlude Sunshine Outro

Hero follows Kirk Franklin's award-encrusted The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin (2002). While Rebirth felt largely like a return to Franklin's Family days, Hero is grounded in his trademark hip-hop gospel a la the Nu Nation Project. But this time around, Franklin draws heavily from '70s-era pop and soul. And he doesn't just tinker with these samples; instead, he uses them to shape something new and interesting. Though there's plenty of vocal energy, Hero's sound is somehow more honed, more refined, more channeled and focused than earlier projects.

A thread of personal and collective brokenness winds throughout. While not without hope, several tracks make an unrelenting case for the world's need for the hero described in the title track.

That doesn't mean the music is glum. Hero soars to life on the wide velvet lapels of string-and-whistle disco with "Looking for You," which includes background party noises over a sample of Patrice Rushen's "Haven't You Heard."

"Hero," a powerful, orchestral choir song, showcases Franklin's gifts as a songwriter and arranger. It opens with verbal testimonies from people miraculously saved from death, then builds a sense of drama by alternating between soft, unison verses and bolder ones sung in S-A-T parts. It reaches its dramatic pinnacle as Dorinda Clark-Cole ad-libs over a repetitive vamp.

p>Fred Hammond's reflection on wounds caused by fatherlessness sets up "Let It Go." But even if you've read Franklin's autobiography Church Boy (1998), it's likely you still aren't prepared for this deeply personal dirge. Featuring friends tobyMac and P.O.D.'s Sonny Sandoval, it's propelled by a plodding, relentless chorus and a sample of Tears For Fears' "Shout." Franklin shares his story—abandoned by his parents, exposed to drugs and abusive situations, dealing with sexual addictions and encountering a church that he loved but that didn't prepare him for life—over a raw, murky track featuring mournful, urgent cello, bells and handclap. Franklin grieves his past, then offers a hint of hope at the end as he forgives those who hurt him, apologizes for the hurt he's caused, and prays for a better future for his son.

"The Process" transitions into "Imagine Me," a mellow, mid-tempo track which completes his story, as Franklin writes of imagining total freedom from insecurity and pain. "Could've Been," a high-energy collaboration with Tye Tribbett and J Moss, is a step-danceable praise party, with a funky breakdown vamp and lyrics that take on an extra poignancy given the recent hurricanes. The skatable "Better," has more than a hint of the verve and showmanship that mark the drum-and-bugle corps on many historically African-American colleges and universities. Listen for this one on a football field near you.