Not long ago, the Rev. Franklin could have been the dying patient in question. Abandoned by his mother as a baby in 1971, he never knew his father and spent his teen years running the inner city's mean streets with gangs and drugs. Looking for an outlet for his instinctive and extraordinary musical gifts, however, Franklin found the church, turned his life around, and burst out of nowhere in the early '90s to create a musical sensation.
Franklin's innovations transcend the gospel's usual restrictions to the church and the back racks at WalMart. “Stomp,” the hit from his album "God's Property," featured a rap by Salt, of the mainstream hip-hop group Salt-N-Pepa. Played in dance halls across the country, it raised controversy for bringing gospel music into the realm of "worldly things." In 1998, he broke new ground with the remake of Bill Withers’ 1972 hit “Lean on Me,” with vocal contributions from Mary J. Blige and Bono from U2. “I’ve always considered gospel music to be a representation of our faith,” says Franklin, “not a definition of any one particular musical sound or style.”
But neither does Franklin let style overshadow the message. The gospel/R&B duo Mary Mary had a huge hit this year with the moving single “Shackles (Praise You),” a song one could dance to without ever really hearing the gospel. One Nation Crew never lets you forget why they are singing, and who they are singing about--even if you are dancing.
The downside is that the gospel preached on "1NC" is exclusively personal. There's no mention of how Jesus propels individuals to help others, aside from urging them to accept Jesus as their savior (the album even ends with an altar call). In “Could Have Been Me,” the singer gives praise for being spared the fate of a homeless beggar. Jesus' teaching that we should help people in that situation is nowhere in evidence. The interludes scattered through the album that promote prayer in school and declaring Jesus the only path to God also may chafe those who disagree with these points of view.
The multiethnic group, hand picked by Franklin, throws out sounds of South Africa and Latin America, as well as urban contemporary and R&B, pop, praise, and Sunday morning gospel. The crew handles each style admirably in both English and Spanish. Those looking for dance tracks should focus on "Movin’ On," "Unconditional," and "Hands Up"; the best praise songs are "Free" and "In Your Grace," and “Could Have Been Me” has a true pop flavor. With that much range of style and tradition in his crew, Franklin's ability to keep the gospel message clear and compelling is a victory in itself.