There was no room for sanctimony in the sold-out Warner Theatre on Saturday night. Everything in Kirk Franklin’s show, from the gospel artist’s ultra-casual black jogger pants and collared tunic to his pop-lock and milly-rock dances, was meticulously coordinated in defiance of many churches’ stuffy and judgmental reputations. He insisted that the audience members shed their self-consciousness and let loose as well, reassuring them by saying: “It’s okay. You’re at a Kirk concert.” But his reputation preceded him.
It was 1997 when Franklin’s “Stomp (Remix)” exploded with a thundering funkadelic sample and a verse from Salt of famed hip-hop trio Salt-N-Pepa, and it still propels people from their seats 19 years later. Although it was the penultimate song in Franklin’s set, it’s the tune that determined the show’s tone, just as it also determined the trajectory of his career. He has spent two decades spurning the rules of a genre that historically fashioned itself around a conservative religious aesthetic, effectively bridging the gap between gospel music and youth culture.
Never one to mince words, Franklin poked fun at his status as gospel’s black sheep throughout the show and faced his latest controversy head-on. He altered the lyrics of the rallying “Give Me” to include the line “If we humble ourselves, anyone can be saved, even Kanye,” referring to his recent collaboration with the often-criticized Kanye West and subsequent defense of the rapper. On Instagram, a portion of the caption on a photo of the two read, “To a lot of my Christian family, I’m sorry he’s not good enough, Christian enough, or running at your pace.”
Inclusiveness is one of Franklin’s biggest draws. He never shies away from his imperfections nor from those who are also openly imperfect. He nodded to another rapper, Kendrick Lamar — whose music has gospel leanings of its own — as he recalled the familiar conflicting emotions he felt when leaving church as a child only to be enticed by hip-hop as soon as he got in the car. It was a moment of candor that seemed to resonate across the room and showed the sort of transparency that makes his music so accessible.
Franklin dotted the night with lighthearted jokes and playfully directed his live band and dependable choir, the audience, as he ran through his catalogue of seemingly endless gospel hits. At moments, the blink-and-miss-it snippets of songs felt like a tease, but doing justice to 23 years of music in two hours would otherwise be an impossible task.
Despite the title of his latest Grammy-winning album, “Losing My Religion,” anywhere Franklin appears is assuredly a gospel event, and this was no exception. In between the two-stepping and chart-toppers such as “I Smile,” “Looking For You” and “Wanna Be Happy?,” worship and testifying spread from corner to corner. It was a celebration for fans who understand — just as Franklin always has — that praise can be both humbly prayerful and a triumphant party.