Kirk Franklin hasn't yet shown his face in the 2,000-square-foot "A" room of North Dallas' Universal Rehearsal studios, but the space is already filled with an infectious spirit.
Musicians from the Fort Worth gospel superstar's 13-piece touring band and other crew members are buzzing around, warming up, getting ready to rehearse their upcoming tour one last time.
They've been at this for 10 days, a short rehearsal window considering the scope of the production. Yet it's as momentous a trek as Franklin has undertaken in his two-decade-plus career, and its nightly set list will celebrate the innovative gospel singer and arranger's entire body of work.
When the 46-year-old multiple Grammy winner shows up, in workout-style clothing, he greets everyone in his path with an embrace.
"We hug here," he tells us before stepping in front of his band to begin the run-through. This one will be quick but "all energy," he says — previous days' sessions have run at least eight hours.
Assembled for the "20 Years in One Night" tour are top-notch musicians from this area and beyond, including a horn section, multiple keyboard/synth players, a drummer, a guitarist, a bassist and, of course, the singers who will make Franklin's choruses soar and inspire.
The main man and his band rehearse before a mirrored wall in Universal's biggest room -- it helps them to imagine the crowds they'll meet all over the country. They'll play Dallas April 10 at the Majestic Theatre.
Franklin opens the session with a few remarks: "These musicians and singers are the backbone of what we do," he says. "They are the nucleus."
He leads a prayer, and the rehearsal shifts into high gear.
"You ready? Let's go!"
That begins a medley of songs from the gospel mastermind's expansive body of work.
The medley finds its most uplifting moments in the hand-clapping, feel-good vibes of "123 Victory," from last year's album Losing My Religion, and the stirring, upbeat anthem "Before I Die," from 2011's Hello Fear.
Watching Franklin and his cast doing their thing this close up would thrill any lover of live music. It's not just about universally inspirational messages; it's also about the players' skill and conviction behind the material.
After rising to nonsecular prominence with "Kirk Franklin and the Family" recordings, the artist achieved major crossover success producing the God's Property single "Stomp" in 1997. Since then he's merged traditional gospel with more current, secular styles on many best-selling studio albums and collaborative projects.
Franklin's musical director Shaun Martin, a Grammy winner for his work with the local jazz collective Snarky Puppy, characterizes his role on this tour as a youthful dream come to fruition.
"I still remember buying [Franklin's] first record, which had 'Why We Sing,' as a teenager," Martin tells us later. "The dude's body of work is amazing."
That's probably why it seems like a Herculean task to choose the material for a single set list when there are 20 years of hits from which to draw. But Franklin, always the creative thinker, tells us during a break that he selected and arranged the entire concept during a single night in a hotel room, with the help of a time-tested study aid.
"I had index cards of every song I've ever written, and I just laid them all out on the floor," Franklin says. "I set them up as if I was arranging the songs, and the ideas came as to what would flow and be cohesive.
"You go wrong when you think music. As long as you feel music, the music tells you where to go."
A lesser musician and arranger might not have the creative instinct that has so blessed Franklin as a best-selling artist and gospel icon. But what has inspired his work is a bit more complicated than a spotless church upbringing.
He's always been a man of Christian devotion, yes, but he's experienced significant struggles interwoven with the successes. Franklin and his wife, Tammy, discussed his long battle with pornography addiction in a high-profile Oprah interview in 2005. He's also faced legal challenges arising from former collaborators over royalties.
While those episodes are well documented and far in Franklin's rearview, he says that such tests of faith have informed his music greatly. You can hear it all over his discography. In every record, seemingly, he'll offer up a dedication to folks who are going through all manner of hard times -- people who, in his words, feel God has forgotten them.
He's felt that way, he says, especially when the demands of his career have interfered with a righteous path.
"When you take anything as pure as art and you have to collaborate it with commerce, it's not always easy," he says. "'What's the single?' 'What's the video?' 'What's the market?' That stuff can suck, and it can really get you lost."
One can't help but think of one of Franklin's recent secular collaborators, Kanye West, when he speaks on the struggle between art and commerce. Franklin contributed a spoken prayer and arranged a gospel chorus on the first track of West's recent album, The Life of Pablo, a project beset with controversy about everything from its chaotic rollout to its alternately sacred and profane content. He also appeared live with West in a performance of that song, "Ultralight Beam," on Saturday Night Live last month.
The work with West didn't go over well with some of Franklin's more staunchly traditional fans, who questioned the appropriateness of the collaboration. But Franklin, who's made a habit of engaging secular artists over the years, was quick to counter those concerns on social media. He echoes his sentiments when we ask about West.
"My relationship with Kanye does not make him more famous," Franklin says. "He does not need me for that. If I am in somebody's life, I already know that I am just there to try to be a light as a Christian and try to be an example of what a servant of God would be, to show love.
"It's very easy for humanity to measure who's the worst and who's the best, but that's why I'm very glad that God's ruler stick and measuring tape are not like ours."
Franklin makes it a priority to extend his wisdom to his hometown musical community as well.
When he's not out on the road, Franklin calls Arlington home, and he's planning something that will give the city's downtown arts scene a significant boost.
Still in its early stages is an office and recording studio that will be dubbed Uncle Jessie's Kitchen, named in honor of a former team member and longtime friend, Jessie Hurst.
"We are very excited to have a place that can just continue to breed and groom, because we want to make good music," Franklin says. "The narrative of my music is, of course, Christian, but we want to make music that just inspires people."
Like many conversations, ours eventually shifts to the political and social tumult surrounding the U.S. presidential campaign.
Franklin is careful with his words, but makes his views clear on how the faithful should approach the increasingly ugly election cycle.
"When I see Christians trying to hold on to life support, jumping on Trump or jumping on anything that seems to have life, that's very concerning to me," he says. "You can have relevancy but still be authentic, and not not just rise up with someone that has no experience in any political form at all, just because he has a microphone."
But that's the sharpest thing Franklin has to say during the rehearsal visit. Otherwise he sticks to the themes of love, acceptance and musical epiphany, topics that serve as the undercurrent of the "20 Years in One Night" trek and his gospel career at large.
"I think that when you are a pleaser, you are caught up in the moment of trying to make sure that the people watching are enjoying that ride," he says. "The greatest compliment to art is when people can say, 'me too.'"
Hunter Hauk on Twitter: @hausofhunter