Before I knew anything of hip-hop, I knew the gospel. Growing up in a southern Baptist home can be an insular experience. God and Christianity were a serious affair, and a conservative, largely unquestioned way of life tended to follow. Dresses and suits were required to step into church, profanity and promiscuity were considered sinful. That pretty much made hip-hop the devil. Still, maybe ironically, it was a gospel song that first ushered rap into my household: Kirk Franklin's 1997 "Stomp (Remix)" was an unprecedented megahit, slyly blending Christian messages with secular sounds. It featured a new jack swing beat built around the funky disco of Funkadelic's “One Nation Under A Groove,” as well as a little hip-hop courtesy of Salt of Salt-N-Pepa. Anchored by "Stomp," God's Property from Kirk Franklin's Nu Nation, the songwriter and producer's fourth album, debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and topped the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums charts. Both feats were a first for a gospel album.
Franklin had stirred interest after the breakout success of “Why We Sing,” a 1993 single released with his original ensemble The Family. But it was his collaboration with God’s Property, a youth choir comprised mostly of students and alumni of a Dallas performing arts high school, that set things off. The members of God’s Property were significantly younger and more culturally aligned with Franklin than The Family had been, and he found his voice by giving praise music a shiny veneer. “I think [our age] was one of the things that made him gravitate to [God’s Property],” says Shaun Martin who was a keyboardist for the choir and is now Franklin’s music director and producer. “We recorded that album in 1996 — it was two weeks after I graduated high school. That's how young we were.”
Himself a 20-something at the time, Franklin felt the potent pull of hip-hop culture, going so far as to call himself a “holy dope dealer” in a 1997 Vibe cover story. Despite the surface-level incongruities, he didn’t resist rap and R&B and the style they had catapulted to the forefront of black culture. Instead, Franklin embraced the hip-hop generation, transforming its influences into gospel music that was fresh and hip. His iconic 1998 ballad "Lean On Me" strategically called on R&B/hip-hop mainstays Mary J. Blige and R. Kelly. That same year, the video for the Rodney Jerkins-produced “Revolution,” whose lyrics nod to Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” looked like it took its cues from Missy Elliott's groundbreaking visual style. By adopting a style that appealed to so-called “urban youth” sensibilities, Franklin gave gospel a much-needed facelift.
In 1997, teenybopper pop, R&B, and hip-hop dominated the charts, but the contagious spirit of “Stomp” made it undeniable. MTV, then the acting thermometer of youth culture, made it the first gospel record to enter the channel on heavy rotation. The uncool had suddenly become cool. But it wasn't just the aesthetic that captured our attention.
For me, Franklin and God’s Property marked the first time the word didn’t feel force-fed. When his Nu Nation tour stopped in my hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, I proudly attended and leapt at the opportunity to “stomp” on stage with other kids. Several years later, when I joined my church’s youth choir, nearly every song we took on came from his catalog. Though gospel had already been a staple in many black households — my own life was soundtracked by my father’s Shirley Caesar and Yolanda Adams CDs — Franklin simply made music that resonated with young people.
Vicki Mack Lataillade, founder of GospoCentric Records, a once-independent label now owned by Sony, said in a 1995 interview with Billboard that “[Franklin’s] music is straight up gospel. If there’s an R&B flavor, it’s him. He’s young, and his presentation is young.” A few months later, she doubled down on the widespread appeal of “Why We Sing,” saying “the secret is finally out: Gospel lovers listen to urban radio — not a little, but quite a lot.”
Though his acceptance of hip-hop broke significant ground for his generation, Franklin was in good company in making secular-sounding religious music. He stood on the shoulders of gospel greats who had similarly thrown tradition to the wayside. In the ‘80s, singer Tramaine Hawkins traded her robes for a more fashion-forward look and drew criticism for synth-pop records like “Fall Down (Spirit Of Love),” which sounds like it could've easily belonged to Whitney Houston. (In fact, the song topped the Hot Dance/Disco charts to become one of the first modern crossover gospel records.)
John P. Kee's “It Could've Been Me,” released in 1994, sounded like it had been produced by Teddy Riley himself. And before them, there was the late Andrae Crouch, who incorporated elements of jazz, pop, and rock in his music as early as the ‘60s, much to the ire of traditionalists who accused him of watering down the message of God. These artists aspired to spread the word as far as it could reach, even when it required them to rebel against elements they felt rendered the genre inaccessible. In doing so, they laid a nearly flawless blueprint for Franklin to follow.
But, despite the precedents set by the likes of Hawkins and Crouch, Franklin’s gospel-gone-mainstream wasn’t considered a victory by everyone. The genre was facing an ongoing internal battle over the sacred aesthetic principles of days past. It's the same point of contention that continues to plague hip-hop, R&B, and other genres, driving fans, tastemakers, and artists to butt heads and philosophies as they try to determine what is authentic, or “real,” and what isn't. Within gospel, the argument sometimes became especially antagonistic. Franklin explained as much in his 1998 autobiography, Church Boy: “Some of our strongest critics, especially inside the church, said we had turned our backs on traditional gospel music and were just contemporary R&B artists exploiting Christian lyrics for the money. But that’s not true,” he wrote.
In a 1998 issue of Jet, he took those critics to task: “Gospel music is not a sound; gospel music is a message. Gospel music means good news. It's good-news music,” he said, prophetically echoing Kelly Price’s recent defense of Kanye West and her proclamation that The Life Of Pablo's spirit made it a gospel album. But, in the Jet interview, Franklin went even further: “[No] matter how radical my music might seem, does the music say Jesus or does it not say Jesus?"
Martin, who has worked with Franklin for 20 years now, commends him for continuing to stick with that principle: “At the end of the day, no matter how urban, no matter how clubby, there's one main thread. It’s always been and it always will be Jesus. Sometimes you just have to figure out how to present it in a different type of package,” he says.
The backlash from gospel communities wasn’t hard to understand: People are often inclined to draw well-defined lines around their experiences to help them navigate the world; things become either good or bad, holy or evil, gospel or secular, black or white. Of course, the truth is that much of life happens in the gray spaces, and Franklin committed himself to making music that not-so-neatly fits those in-betweens. His music assumes the imperfections of its audience, and chooses to encourage rather than preach or, worse, condemn.
"You know, my job is try to also create a horizontal Jesus. Most gospel music is very vertical. And there's nothing wrong with that. There's nothing wrong with, you know, ‘God, we praise you!’ and ‘Hallelujah!’” he told NPR in an interview earlier this year. “But I also like to do songs that are very horizontal, that kind of fit within the fabric of people's everyday life. Wanting to be happy is something that every human being aspires to have. That's a conversation that anybody can have at any time.”
Throughout the ‘90s, hip-hop and R&B were central to black culture, and their steady ascension into the mainstream put gospel music, and gospel artists, on the defense. Ironically, the relationship between all three has always been, and remains, symbiotic: DMX prays on records and, albeit less explicitly, so does Kendrick Lamar. Members of Blackstreet have included gospel songs in their catalog, and so have megastars like Beyoncé and the late Whitney Houston.
So it makes sense that, over the years, Franklin and his influence successfully transcended gospel's self-imposed shackles and penetrated unexpected corners of pop culture. After all, the genre has been omnipresent and enduring in black culture for decades. “Within African American culture, we all have roots in church — whether it's you go your grandmama house and she's playing gospel or you actually have to go to church,” Martin agrees. “Just the other day, Snoop [Dogg] posted a video of him singing [Franklin's] 'Silver And Gold.' There's a root that's in us. Even for people that don't believe in God, gospel music is in your life.”
That root continues to be seen in black music today. More recently, Franklin’s contributions to Kanye West's The Life Of Pablo, his spirited co-sign of Kendrick Lamar, and his discovery of a disciple in Chance The Rapper are evidence of a legacy that crosses generations just as much as it once crossed genre. If Franklin had a perfect musical inverse, it could easily be Chance. The Lord isn't just a prop or a namedrop in the Chicago rapper's music: He's the centerpiece. That much is clear on last week’s Coloring Book, but Chance has fused the secular and the religious for years.
Early songs, from his 2012 mixtape #10Day and 2013’s breakout Acid Rap, find Chance engaging in spiritual battle, a concept that’s long been central to worship music. On #10Day’s "Missing You," he claims he's going to war with fate and going to war with God, only to plead with that same God a few songs later on "Long Time.” You can imagine him falling to his knees as he raps, I'm calling out to God/ Your little angel's falling down/ Save me from my darkened cloud/ Reach your hands and arms around. A similar conflict plays out on Acid Rap. On "Everybody's Something," he wonders, Why God’s phone die every time that I call on Him?/ If his son had a Twitter, wonder if I would follow him? before claiming himself sanctified and baptized on the devastating "Acid Rain."
These days, Chance’s songs have taken a more explicit turn towards the gospel, and the grandmother, that raised him. "I grew up in the church,” Chance told Chicago's 107.5 WGCI in a 2014 interview. "Sunday Candy," the lead single from last year’s Social Experiment album Surf, “is specifically is dedicated to my grandmother who kept me into church so that’s a big feel on a new thing." He went on to describe Franklin as a “musical genius,” cite him as an influence, and express a desire to one day meet the gospel artist. The universe can be funny that way; the pair wound up working together on Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam.”
Like Franklin, Chance is hardly straddling fences. When he rapped, Sneak that rap, put a message in/ It's that sugary medicine, on Towkio's triumphant "Heaven Only Knows" last year, he was perhaps offering a confirmation of his gospel intentions, which manifest beautifully on Coloring Book. The Jay Electronica-assisted “How Great” cuts in like a praise break in the middle of a rap show, drawing from the similarly titled Chris Tomlin gospel hit ”How Great Is Our God.” “No Problems” samples a choir, while album opener “All We Got” features both Kanye and the Chicago Children’s Choir. Franklin himself contributes a vocal arrangement and delivers a blessing on the stacked “Finish Line/Drown.”
When Chance premiered “Blessings” with a performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, the song came across as a spoken word testimony dotted by Donnie's trumpet, Jamila Woods's hymn of a hook, and Byron Cage’s moving nod to fellow gospel legend Fred Hammond. The whole thing feels to gospel like what "Stomp" was to rap, daring listeners to question which genre it belongs to the most. Of course, to ask is to miss both Chance's and Franklin's point: the medium is irrelevant when the message is so important.