Faith in a comfort zone

A decade ago, a resolute R&B singer from New Jersey released her debut album on a fledgling music label run by a producer whom she heard would be big.

That same year, she met -- and, nine days later, married -- a portly rapper from Brooklyn whom she heard would be big.

She heard correctly. The producer was Sean "P. Diddy" Combs; the rapper was Notorious B.I.G. The singer, Faith Evans, found success too, but was often eclipsed by two hip-hop stars: the one who discovered her and the one who loved her before he was slain in a still-unsolved 1997 shooting in Los Angeles.

These days, she's more than ready to step out from their shadows. On Tuesday, Evans released "The First Lady," her first album for Capitol Records -- and also her declaration of independence.

A dulcet blend of retro-soul, adult contemporary and hip-hop-flavored R&B, the new album is her first made without the auspices of Combs, whom she implored to release her from her contract with his Bad Boy label.

"I had to keep chipping away at the old ice block, but in the end Puff agreed, and I got to give him props for that," Evans explains, lunching on sashimi and salad at a trendy Manhattan restaurant.

"I came to him and said, 'I'm talking to you as a woman. Can you sit here and tell me you think the right thing to do is keep me, and not let me grow and spread my wings?' "

They've parted ways, but she and Combs, Evans hastens to add, are hardly on bad terms. This day she's recovering from an "emotional reunion" with him, which took place the previous night at a New York concert commemorating the eighth anniversary of Notorious B.I.G.'s death and was followed by an impromptu after-party at Combs' studio, Daddy's House.

"It was therapeutic for us," Evans says, "but I'm still exhausted." She doesn't look it; sporting a turquoise sweater, fur vest and gray pageboy cap, she is spirited and chic. She is also, as fans have noted, half her former size: Thanks to her new addiction, exercise, Evans is in the best shape of her life.

For proof, see her video for "Again," the new album's single. It's a sweet empowerment anthem that's poignant and proud without being pretentious, and its video is an ad for the new and improved Faith: her low points -- last year's arrest for drug possession -- and her high ones -- Evans' 2004 relocation, with husband and three children in tow, to her new home and record label in Los Angeles.

"I graduated from the school of hard knocks, " Evans, 31, says quietly. "And I'm not getting any younger. But this album is about starting all over."

Resilience was something Evans learned at a young age. She grew up, as she puts it, "with a lot of dysfunction, but a lot of love." Her mother was an aspiring singer who never found fame -- "the only black girl running with these white folk-rock hippies," she says, laughing -- who left Evans to be raised by her grandparents. With her eye on a big break, Evans sang in any and all settings: church, sure, but also "weddings, funerals, retirement parties -- anything. Newark Airport family day."

While on full academic scholarship at Fordham University in the Bronx, Evans earned gigs as a session singer for such future stars as Usher. She also met a young businessman who had insiders buzzing: "This Puffy guy," she recalls, smirking. "He had the gift of gab, the business acumen -- what can you even say? -- he had the hustle. People were saying he was going to make some money."

Before getting to work on what would become her platinum-selling Bad Boy debut, "Faith," Combs invited Evans to provide backup vocals for an album by a woman who was already revered in hip-hop circles: Mary J. Blige.

There were obvious similarities between the two singers -- "we were both trying to be like our vision of the black girl in the hood, wearing fly clothes in the ghetto," says Evans -- and there still are: In an age of young divas, Blige and Evans are women's women, artists whom female fans don't regard as otherworldly superstars but as wise older sisters.

During those early days at Bad Boy, Evans had yet another propitious encounter: with Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G., a rapper on whom Combs had set his entrepreneurial sights.

"Before I knew Big," Evans reminisces, "I told Puff I thought he had a crush on me, and he was like, 'He's about to be a superstar!' [Combs] had the whole vision -- he said Big was going to be the first 'unhandsome sex symbol.' And I think he sold that on Big, because Big became that, and Puff created that image."

Evans and Wallace had a whirlwind courtship: "We were young; we fell in love; we were rebellious; we got married," she says. They also had a rocky marriage that some gossip pages labeled abusive, a claim Evans balks at. "Yes, we certainly had our run-ins," she asserts. "And did it get physical every now and then? Yeah. But I wasn't the battered wife."

Evans also had "a couple of run-ins" with the woman who had a very public, very high-profile relationship with Wallace: rapper Lil' Kim. These "run-ins" also turned physical at times, Evans admits, but she's well past that now. "We both fell in love with the same man. It happens," she says with a shrug.

Although Evans and Wallace were separated when he was killed, they had just had their first child, and Wallace's death was the low point of Evans' life. What brought her "out of my basket-case mode" -- and back into the studio -- was Combs' plan to record "a mass appeal tribute record, the biggest tribute record ever done." "I'll Be Missing You," a hip-hop-meets-gospel version of the Police's "Every Breath You Take," featured Evans, the group 112 and Combs, and it won a Grammy in 1998 for group rap performance.

Nine months after Wallace's death, Evans began picking up the pieces. She married Todd Russaw, who also became her manager, and the two moved to Atlanta. Evans released two more platinum albums and won a Grammy in 2002 but says her stint in Atlanta had its share of disappointments. She and Russaw never quite found the musical community they had been looking for.

An arrest made matters worse: Evans and Russaw pleaded guilty to possession of small amounts of cocaine and marijuana. Both entered a pretrial intervention program.

Two good things, however, were born of those Atlanta years. Evans met a trainer, who turned her on to the joys of a good workout. And she continued, independently, to make music. Among the tracks she and Russaw recorded in their basement was "Mesmerized," a fervent, funky love song that evokes James Brown and Aretha Franklin.

She and Russaw brought "Mesmerized" with them to a meeting with Capitol Records executives, who had expressed interest in signing Evans.

"They listened and were like, 'This is what you're doing at home?' And mind you, there was no Puffy element here -- this was all me. And I'm like, 'Yes! I'm not a maverick! Y'all want to come on board? I got what you need.' "

Chatting volubly about her new life in Los Angeles, about running on the beach and her children's new schools, Evans is suddenly the proud mother. Reaching into her pocketbook, she pulls out photos of her three children, ages 6, 8 and 11.

The 8-year-old boy in a football uniform is the one people usually ask about; he's Christopher Jordan, the son of Evans and Wallace. And, yes, he can rap.

"People are always like, 'Where's Lil' Biggie?' " Evans says. "And C.J. will have to explain to his brother and sister, 'Oh, they just want to know about my dad, that's all.' "

But Evans is more focused on the future than the past. In addition to the new album, she is working on a "motivational workout" DVD, honing her acting skills and developing a sitcom based on the most interesting phase of her life.

What phase would that be?

"Right now, actually," she answers. "Because it's like a new start -- I have years of experience under my belt and the confidence to apply it."


For The Record

Los Angeles Times Thursday April 07, 2005

Faith Evans -- A profile of Faith Evans in Wednesday's Calendar section said the R&B singer won a Grammy Award in 2002. She was nominated but did not win.