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Sounds like … Kirk Franklin returns to the live gospel sound of his early albums and blends it with his own genre-crossing style — gospel mixed with R&B, pop, hip hop, rock, and even LatinAt a Glance … most of Rebirth is solid gospel music at its most eclectic and worshipful, making this yet another triumph for Kirk.
He's been plenty busy with various recording projects, but it's been close to four years since we've seen a new album from multi-platinum gospel artist Kirk Franklin. True, he co-wrote and produced the music for 1NC as well as the soundtrack for the film Kingdom Come, but we haven't heard from Kirk directly since his 1998 Nu Nation Project. Some of this time away from the solo spotlight can be attributed to personal growth, hence the title of the new album, The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin. This project reflects Kirk's desire to get back to the place of purity and simple child-like faith, and he accomplishes this by returning to a more conventional gospel sound. But make no mistake, there's very little about Kirk Franklin that's conventional, and that's a huge part of his broad appeal.
The PR for the album isn't touting it as such, but Rebirth is essentially a live album, albeit a very well-produced and overdubbed one recorded at Lakewood Church in Houston a couple years ago. Kirk is a genius when it comes to directing and producing, and such skills make him a master of all sorts of musical genres. (Is there a genre that the man can't successfully incorporate into his music?) The album's nine live tracks run the gamut of gospel music, from traditional to contemporary to modern. The opening track is a fabulous praise song called "Hosanna," which blends gospel with the contemporary worship sound of a Darlene Zschech album. The result is like a funkier version of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. Kirk shifts from traditional gospel on "Caught Up" (featuring a knockout appearance by Shirley Caesar), to slow and funky R&B on "Lookin' Out for Me," and on to bouncy hip hop-gospel on "Brighter Day." The ballads are extremely beautiful, especially the worshipful "My Life, My Love, My All," and the sweeping power of "Don't Cry" (with Richard Smallwood on piano). The most diverse example of ear candy on the album is probably "He Reigns (The Medley)," which incorporates Rich Mullins's "Awesome God" into an exciting blend of gospel, hip hop, and Latin.
There are a few tracks that feel a bit out of place on Rebirth, particularly the hidden track "Throw Yo Hands Up." Featuring Toby Mac of dc Talk, this is a hard-rocking rapcore song that's not quite as intense as P.O.D., but nevertheless sounds out of place on this album against all the gospel music. It easily could have been on Toby's recent solo debut, which features another collaboration with Kirk called "J Train." I'm not saying fans won't like it, but this might have been a better track on a studio album with more similar-sounding material, rather than on an album of gospel music. Additionally, Kirk intersperses some spoken-word interludes between the songs, and although he's done so before, there are more here on Rebirth than on any of his other albums. The occasional prayer (one by him, another by a group of children) serves as brief preparation for the worship song that follows. Though the album's opening is a little melodramatic (a dramatization of Kirk's abandonment by his mother when he was little), it fits with the album's theme. Other interludes seem overwrought (the crucifixion of Christ, complete with his last words) or forced (a canned-sounding "radio interview" with Kirk explaining the album's title to the DJ). Thankfully, we live in a digital age that allows you to skip these tracks if you find them intrusive, or to listen to them if you find them a blessing.
I still applaud these tracks as evidence of Kirk pushing himself artistically and trying to be adventurous. "911," one of the album's few studio tracks, is a great example of this. The title references the double meaning of those numbers — both the national emergency hotline and the date of the terrorist attacks last fall. Set against a smooth R&B groove, Kirk takes on the role of one who's troubled by the terrorist attacks and the trials of everyday life and calls Bishop T.D. Jakes for comfort and wisdom. It's kind of odd to hear Kirk and Bishop Jakes rhyming back and forth in their dialogue, almost as if they were reciting a Dr. Seuss story. This isn't exactly something you sing/speak along to, and it makes me wonder how people will react to it with repeated listens. But it does lead the listener line by line in prayer at the end of it. Overall this adds up to a very original and clever track (catch Kirk ribbing Bishop Jakes for his Time magazine cover story), not to mention inspiring, with its uplifting message and honest expression of emotion.
The other major studio track (sure to be a hit single for Kirk) is "The Blood Song." Utilizing the vocal talents of Donnie McClurkin, Crystal Lewis, and Jaci Velasquez, the song strives to unify all races, colors, and creeds under the blood of Christ. Musically it's a little too similar to Kirk's past multi-artist R&B ballad, "Lean On Me," but it's still a beautiful song that makes effective use of the hymn "Nothing But the Blood." It's the album's centerpiece, appearing again at the end of the album as a live track with Yolanda Adams and Alvin Slaughter sharing guest vocals.
So how does The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin measure up as a gospel project? Personally, I preferred the Nu Nation Project and the God's Property albums because they fused gospel and hip hop so much more effectively — enough to make them successful outside the Christian sub-culture. Rebirth is more like your typical gospel album, and yet Kirk's songwriting and genre-blending keep it from becoming too routine. Compare this album to his first two recordings, and you'll see how far he's come as an artist and a worship leader, and how much of a blessing his ministry is to gospel music. The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin may be about spiritual rebirth, but musically it feels more like a return to form rather than a reinvention of style. It's still terrific, and it goes without saying that this will be one of the biggest gospel releases people will be talking about for the next couple years.