Faith Evans may be the ’90s Queen of Quiet Storm R&B, but she also has mythic status. Evans pursued an epic romance with New York rapper The Notorious B.I.G. (aka Christopher Wallace or Biggie), and in doing so became embroiled in the bicoastal war between Biggie and 2Pac (Tupac Shakur) and their respective labels, Bad Boy Entertainment and Death Row Records. This culminated in her husband’s 1997 murder.
Now, on the 20th anniversary of Biggie’s passing, Evans is commemorating their transitory union with a duets album, The King & I. New songs with a throwback ’90s flava have been constructed using vocals from Biggie’s classic, rare and vault recordings. The single ‘Legacy’, masterminded by Stevie J, encapsulates the sub-theme – celebrating Biggie as the King of NYC.
In fact, Evans conceived The King & I years ago, inspired by Natalie Cole’s virtual duet with her late father, Nat King Cole, ‘Unforgettable’. “It was my attorney who reminded me of the idea,” Evans discloses. The trickiest aspect of the enterprise was rather mundane – Evans had to chase her support cast: West Coast ally Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes, Lil’ Kim, Lil’ Cease and The LOX. “I don’t even know if it was so much a challenge because it’s just a part of when you’re working with other people and their schedules,” she explains. “But, other than that, everything really came together pretty famously on the creative side.” Symbolically, Biggie’s “Mama”, Voletta Wallace, provides narration.
Evans is chatty yet poised. For an artist often subsumed by controversy, it’s remarkable that there are no “off-limits” questions. But Evans shares only what she wants.
Evans was born to a professional singer in Florida – her white father a mystery. She grew up in New Jersey, singing in church then migrated to Los Angeles to further her music. Here, she was spotted as a backing vocalist by Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, who made her the ‘First Lady’ of his Bad Boy stable. Evans acquired valuable writing experience contributing to Mary J Blige’s My Life. In 1995 she aired Faith – the first of three hit albums on Bad Boy.
The year prior, Evans hung out with The Notorious B.I.G. at a Bad Boy photoshoot and, the legend goes, they wed after a nine-day courtship. Nonetheless, Biggie, an eternal playa, had affairs – notably with his protégé, Lil’ Kim. During an estrangement, Evans proceeded to cut some vocals for Shakur, unaware of the intensifying feud between Biggie and his former ally. Shakur subsequently unleashed that shocking (and, yes, misogynist) diss track, ‘Hit ‘Em Up’, mocking Wallace and suggesting he and Evans had hooked up. Evans vehemently denied Shakur’s assertion but realised that she’d been “played”. Shakur was killed in a drive-by shooting in September 1996. Six months on, the same fate befell Biggie, 24, in LA.
As Biggie’s widow, and the mother of his baby son, Evans participated in Combs’ 1997 tribute ‘I’ll Be Missing You’ – a global chart-topper and Grammy-winner. However, she refused to stay R&B’s tragic heroine. Evans remarried. In the early noughties, she switched labels, signing to Capitol. Her music trajectory did slow and her last album, 2014’s indie Incomparable was slept-on. Regardless, she’s built an impressive discography, guesting on songs by everyone from A Tribe Called Quest to Whitney Houston to Teena Marie.
Significantly, Evans published her autobiography, Keep The Faith, in 2008. How necessary was it to author her own narrative – and mythology? “It’s very important, but I kind of feel like I always have,” Evans posits. Today she accepts that speculation about her life is inevitable. “But,” Evans stresses, “in terms of growing as an artist, and as a business person, I’m in a totally different place at this point in my career.”
The King & I‘s greatest revelation is Lil’ Kim’s cameo on ‘Lovin You For Life’ with Evans maintaining that there’s no longer drama between the women. “I actually wanted to do a song with Kim a while ago – a few albums back,” she says. “[But] I was living in [New] Jersey at the time, so I just wasn’t able to make it happen. I didn’t have a direct connect to her.” Evans vibed with Kim on 2016’s Bad Boy Family Reunion Tour. “I told her about the project and told her I would love for her to be a part of it and she said ‘yes’.”
Biggie stands as one of hip-hop’s seminal – and most loved – MCs. Evans fondly remembers the man behind ‘Biggie Smalls’. “The persona of him, as based on his lyrics and the way he told stories and was so dark sometimes – very honest, but sometimes it was a little dark – you would tend to not understand that he was really like a big teddy bear and a jokester. It’s not like that was what he sat around doing all day – trying to rile people (laughs). I mean, maybe he did try it a few times when that was what his hustle was. But he was really a big kid. He was raised in Catholic school, getting good grades, and his Mama’s a devout Jehovah’s Witness, so he had to go to Bible study and all of that stuff for a long time – until he probably got a little rebellious!”
As with Shakur’s murder case, Biggie’s remains open – fuelling wild conspiracy theories. President Obama even referenced these while mocking Donald Trump at that infamous White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Wallace’s family still seeks closure. But Evans affirms that she’s cautious of the police investigation. “I think, if anything, we became weary of the legal procedure of it all and of the lack of the other side being proactive,” she says. “The case not being solved is very disappointing – especially when we feel like they know what happened. But we can’t force their hand in admitting that they know what happened, either. So all we really can do is pray, that, one day, justice is served or someone is brought to justice for it.”
In later years Evans has diversified. She had a role in The Fighting Temptations as, bizarrely, Cuba Gooding, Jr’s mother (with Beyoncé Knowles his boo). “I haven’t done as much acting as I would like – only because three of my children are 18 and over, but my youngest, he’s 10 and he’s on the autism spectrum. So a lot of stuff I try and do where I can schedule it around my house stuff.” Evans likewise appeared in, and executive produced, the reality TV show R&B Divas. In 2017 she hopes to finally tour Australia.
Evans might be as influential as Biggie. Kehlani has absorbed her soul-pop – but so evidently has Adele. “Oh, wow,” Evans, an Adele super-fan, responds. “I would die if I found that out!” And Kendrick Lamar’s recent single ‘The Heart Part 4′ samples Evans’ ‘I Love You’. “Oh, wow,” Evans says again. “I didn’t know that. ‘Hey, Kendrick!’ I probably had to sign off on it, but I don’t really remember. I probably would have been like (excitedly), ‘Do you know Kendrick Lamar is sampling my song?’ Wow.”
Urban music has changed dramatically since Evans’ debut, but she’s receptive. “I think that this new generation has been a lot more free in their thinking and not afraid to just try things that may seem a little left-of-centre,” Evans suggests. “I’m a creative person, so I don’t really try and judge it. I try and understand it, if anything – and find out from my kids what it is about it that I should like.”
‘The King & I’ is out Friday, May 19th