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Cues From a Higher Power

Gospel star Kirk Franklin says his music emanates from and reflects back on God.

October 04, 1998|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

The official reason that gospel superstar Kirk Franklin is 45 minutes late for an interview is a traffic snarl between his hotel and the Hollywood sound stage where he's also scheduled to tape an episode of the TV show "Motown Live."

But the hotel is close enough that you could walk it in 45 minutes, so the more likely reason is that he's just in no hurry to do the interview.

Franklin--a 5-foot-4 Texan who has shaken up gospel traditionalists by mixing such alien elements as hip-hop and R&B with the sacred strains--will talk and sing all day about Jesus.

But questions about him and his stardom cause him to squirm.

And those questions have been coming faster and faster since 1996, when his single "Stomp"--a vigorous, funk-minded heavenly rejoicing--became the biggest hard-core gospel hit in the secular R&B world since the Edwin Hawkins Singers' "Oh Happy Day" three decades ago.

Vibe magazine, the nation's leading R&B and hip-hop journal, has already put him on its cover, describing him as the man who has put the " 'go' back in gospel music." It's a sign of the respect he enjoys in the secular world that such pop stars as R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige and U2's Bono joined him on "Lean on Me," a socially conscious track on Franklin's just-released album, "The Nu Nation Project."

"Kirk Franklin means to gospel what Bob Marley meant to reggae," says Jimmy Iovine, the co-head of Interscope Records, which bought half of Gospo Centric Records in a multimillion deal to bring Franklin into the label's fold.

"He's someone who can move gospel further into the mainstream. The first time I saw him live, I told myself, 'I'll be seeing this guy in Dodger Stadium someday.' He just blew me away . . . like a cross between James Brown and Bruce Springsteen."

Franklin is not a great singer like Sam Cooke or Al Green. His talent is as a writer, producer and arranger--casting other singers into the lead role on album tracks. Think of him in the studio as the gospel equivalent of Babyface, complete with self-effacing manner.

Though Franklin is eager for pop sales and exposure, he feels the accompanying media attention places the emphasis on the wrong element--the messenger rather than the message.

"I'm a church boy through and through, and that makes all the secular attention on me a challenge because that attention is completely contradictory to what we believe," he says, sitting on a couch in the dressing room.

"You are supposed to think of your brother first and believe that you [are a success] if your album only sells one copy as long as that copy touches one soul. . . . But in the secular world, the attention is on you. . . . What do you think? What do you do? How great you are.

"That means a daily battle . . . because I know that if I ever pass by a mirror and think that it's me doing all this, that's the first day I fail."

Franklin doesn't have the aura of a star as he walks around the sound stage, waiting for rehearsal. There's nothing flashy or charismatic about him. He's sporting Gucci jeans and a designer shirt, but he doesn't wear them with a GQ chic or swagger.

It's not until he steps onstage to join Al Green and others in a version of R. Kelly's "I Can Fly" that he shows the spark that makes him such a concert force.

As the band begins, you can sense the adrenaline starting to flow, leading to swift, unexpected twists and turns--as well sudden, gruff vocal asides.

It's the kind of show-stopping wallop that record executives surely saw decades ago in such young gospel talent as Cooke and Clyde McPhatter--and made the executives dream about the money to be made if they could get these artists to apply all that passion to secular music.

What's interesting about Franklin is that he's committed to staying in gospel music--and that means a constant struggle with things like secular interviews.

Franklin proves an elusive subject even after you've got got him cornered in the dressing room. While polite, he breaks away at the slightest knock on the door--and the knocks are frequent.

At one point, he perks up when he just hears through the closed door the voice of singer Yolanda Adams. Right in the middle of a question, he shouts at the closed door, "Yolanda, is that you, baby? I'll be out there in just a minute."

When Interscope's Iovine stops by, Franklin is on his feet, shaking hands and flashing his handy humor.

"When am I going to make that record with Marilyn Manson?" he says to Iovine, whose Interscope roster also includes Manson, the shock-rocker whose music has been criticized by some conservative groups as harmful to youngsters.

Later that same humor surfaces when he gets his photo taken with Vicki Mack Lataillade, who signed Franklin to her fledgling Gospo Centric label when he was an unknown.

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