Kirk Franklin‘s seventh album, Hero, is special in more ways than one. The disc is his second as the sole titular artist — no Family, God’s Property, or budding protégé to introduce to the world — and his first-ever all-out studio album, a prospect that gives him more leverage to try new things and push the envelope in ways that doing a live recording wouldn’t let him. Franklin is unique in that he’s more a master of ceremonies and choir leader than anything else, which means Hero‘s ambitious, often intricate compositions are meant for others to sing and make their own. In this case, the guest list is an endless parade of gospel luminaries new and established, including Yolanda Adams, Dorinda Clark-Cole, Marvin Winans, J. Moss, Tye Tribbett, and Franklin‘s own terrific backup vocalists. Not surprisingly, these collaborations represent Hero‘s churchier side, which can range from explosive (“Could’ve Been”) and dramatic (“Hero”) one moment to demure and understated the next (“Afterwhile,” “Brokenhearted”). Stylistically, though, Franklin is at his best when he ventures outside of gospel into realms his peers rarely visit, like disco-pop (“Looking for You”), classic R&B (“Keep Your Head”), ’80s pop/rock (“Let It Go”), and soul (“Why,” featuring none other than Stevie Wonder). It’s these out of the box experiments with their winsome throwback samples, horns, thumping beats, and those versatile backup vocalists that reveal the why of Franklin‘s superstar status in gospel: he’s not just an artist, but a multifaceted entertainer, producer, songwriter, and arranger — a tireless renaissance man who has rightfully earned his place as the best-selling artist in the history of the genre he loves.