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The Fight of My Life
Artist: Kirk Franklin
Label: Fo Yo Soul Entertainment / Zomba Label Group
Time: 16 tracks / 77:01
A recent live appearance by Kirk Franklin on ABC’s ‘Live! With Regis and Kelly,’ left the unprepared audience of – how can I put it – Regis fans (read between the lines) somewhat confused, and with good reason. Who is this guy standing in front of those singers, and why is he yelling at us? Are we supposed to answer him? Why didn’t we get tickets to Rachael Ray instead? The apparent confusion was understandable: Kirk Franklin doesn’t exactly sing…. By his own admission, he’s not a rapper, either. He certainly can dance, although that’s not the focus of his performance (and you wouldn’t be able to see that on a CD, anyway), and he’s a fine keyboard player …but, more often than not, he lets someone else handle the keyboards. It seems, then, that a good question would be: what exactly does Kirk Franklin do that makes him the guy who’s name goes in the ‘artist’ spot on the front of his CDs? It’s an interesting question, and the answer holds the key to what a Kirk Franklin CD is, and why his new project, The Fight of My Life, is an artistic success that transcends genres and makes important spiritual and social statements with disarming honesty and power.
The multi-talented Franklin, who started out as the front-man/choir director/writer/arranger for a variety of youth-driven mini-choirs (Nu Nation, The Family, God’s Property, One Nation Crew), has more recently simplified things by releasing projects under his own name – an inevitable move, since Kirk’s somewhat mischievous, charismatic, dynamic, almost-explosive personality is, and was, the real driving force behind the success of those albums. As a solo artist, Kirk is still using basically the same formula that has already garnered him crossover success, but has refined his technique to the point where he’s almost creating a new art form. More than anything else, Kirk Franklin can be defined as a communicator: like a performance artist, Franklin transcends the normal functions of the recording artist: remember – he doesn’t sing, play or even rap to any great extent, yet he bares his heart and soul, not just through the powerful lyrics (always sung by others), stirring arrangements, and layered production, but by his shouting, pleading, encouraging, and often vulnerable interjections. What Kirk does is almost impossible to define: his words are sometimes commentary on the song itself, sometimes admonitions, sometimes confessions; sometimes he’s in the role of your host, your master of ceremonies, your tour-guide - but most often he’s your brother, suffering the same doubts and insecurities, and battling the same demons that you are. While Franklin doesn’t ‘play’ an instrument (most of the time), he is, in fact, ‘playing’ the entire production, like a hip-hop Orson Welles, Franklin is the director, writer and star of this movie for your ears, using melody, lyrics, spoken words and lavish production to get his message across. The Fight of My Life brings it all together in the most mature, successful Kirk Franklin project yet.
The Fight of My Life starts off, appropriately, with the sound of a boxing ring bell and dramatic orchestration, with Kirk establishing the battle lines, quoting from Romans 7:21, as he announces, “when I would do good, evil is always present with me.” The next fifteen tracks are all about the struggle, in one form or another, of spirit and flesh. Sometimes, like in “Declaration (This is It)” Kirk is the trainer/cheerleader, offering hope and encouragement. Kirk doesn’t ignore the difficult issues of doubt, as in the very honest and moving “Help Me Believe,” which is a lushly orchestrated ‘letter’ to God, confessing that we need His help to have any faith at all. The song builds up to the kind of big, emotional ending that will reach right into your soul. Like Marvin Winans, on this year’s Alone But Not Alone CD, Franklin has stepped out of the traditional Gospel ‘box’ to incorporate intricate, richly-textured arrangements into this album, to the extent that “Hide Me,” had me making a mental comparison to Burt Bacharach’s arranging and instrumentation: normally, I would think that this would be the kiss of death on a gospel project, but Kirk never lets the gloss hide the humanity on this song, or anywhere else on the project. By no means am I implying that there’s any shortage of funk, rock or old-school Gospel on this CD – Kirk has covered all bases. “Little Boy,” is a big, fat, thick, slow-funky jam that will absolutely rock you out of your seat if you let it. Kirk gives a little big-brotherly advice, while the amazing Rance Allen works out a bluesy-gospel vocal that’s almost scary in its intensity, backed up by a tight band and jazzy horn section that threatens to blow right through your speakers. Turn it up and bathe in the funk of this one! It’s old-school Gospel time with “He Will Supply,” so get ready for some good old Hammond organ, piano, bass and guitar behind that choir. Kirk doesn’t forget to rock out on “I Am God,” with guest vocals by Toby Mack.
Lyrically, Franklin touches
on intensely personal issues of faith and doubt, but also turns his eye
towards the physical needs of those in and out of the church community.
On the album’s final track, “The Last Jesus,” Franklin issues a challenge
to The Church, and lays it all on the line: “Too busy / forgive me /
I’ve got problems of my own. It’s easier to say, your
help is on the way / But I was your help all along …tell me what’s the
if they can’t see Jesus in you and me?” Kirk is careful in his observations
to turn his (and our) examining eye inside. The fight of Kirk’s life is
also the fight of our lives, and his transparency and passion in dealing
with these issues through his art has produced a work that grows richer
with each listening. I would recommend The Fight of My Life to anyone
willing to have a little fun, get a little funky, and risk a little introspection.
When it comes to gospel superstar Kirk Franklin, everything is larger than life. Whether he’s producing a movie soundtrack, hosting a talent-search show on BET, or making an album of his own, his various ventures aren’t just career moves -- they’re events. He has no other choice. As the best-selling contemporary gospel artist of the SoundScan era -- think of him as the Dick Clark or the Diddy of gospel -- his exploits need to transcend the mundane, just like his music can’t just be straitjacketed to the sometimes limiting scope of gospel music. Franklin goes all out, and The Fight of My Life is no exception. This is his third recording as the sole titular artist -- no Family, God’s Property, or budding protégé or singing aggregate to introduce -- which gives him more artistic leverage, even if he himself is never one to go it all alone. Since the more the merrier for him, _The Fight of My Life_ is all-out merriment, as guests as diverse as tobyMac, Da’ T.R.U.T.H., and Rance Allen all make appearances here, each rubbing off on Franklin some of their own flavor, but never quite imposing themselves on the master of ceremonies, who’s clearly at the helm here. Franklin knows exactly what he wants to accomplish and does so without pulling any punches, impervious to the fact that core gospel listeners might not touch it with a 10-foot pole. Such is the case with leadoff single “Declaration (This Is It!),” a blazing, rhythmic slice of urban neo-gospel, an empowering anthem that cleverly samples Kenny Loggins’ funk-pop hit “This Is It” and repurposes it for the saints, the sinners, and anyone with ears to hear. The same goes for the horn-drenched “Jesus!” (yes, with an exclamation point), a sunny, multi-layered block party replete with a children’s choir, string and horn sections, and vocalists that sound like drill sergeants. The sonic beds are dizzying, even overdone at times, but they’re no less effective, particularly during the ballads, where Franklin’s exceptional knack for arrangement rises to the fore. For proof, look no further than “Help Me Believe,” a moving, heart-rending number about the struggle to keep the faith that Franklin infuses with so much nuance, the results are truly breathtaking. The Fight of My Life is gospel like you’ve never heard before -- easily the most ambitious album of Franklin’s career and arguably the best in his storied, 15-plus-year trajectory thus far.