Biggie's widow makes a bid for neo-soul stardom on a new label -- and proves that her singing is more than enough to overcome the faceless tracks featuring guest rappers that open and close this otherwise vintage disc.
The First Lady, Faith Evans' fourth album of modern R&B, is a complex package to decode. Before you listen to a single note, the disc makes an interesting impression. And before you even look at the cover, you inevitably come to the record with expectations. Maybe it's a problem that the music itself could wind up secondary to its hype and packaging -- or is music is strong enough to stand alone?
First, you probably know that Evans was introduced to The Notorious B.I.G. by Sean "Puffy" Combs and married the oversized rapper nine days later. And you almost surely know that the rumor her child was fathered by Tupac Shakur may have led to Biggie's death in the most famous East Coast-West Coast feud in hip-hop. You might have heard that she and her new husband were arrested for cocaine and marijuana possession last year and that she entered rehab. And, this being a question of celebrity, she then lost 50 pounds.
You'll notice that her new recording is on the venerable Capitol Records, which is notable for several reasons. For starters, this makes The First Lady the first thing she's done away from Bad Boy Entertainment and without the production of Combs, who arguably created her as a platinum-selling star. While on Bad Boy, Evans cultivated a soulful hip-hop image -- but the cover of First Lady combines hip-hop with Streisand: a cool, grey background, a fur coat falling off her shoulder, diamonds tasteful around her neck. Even the font that spells out her name and album title seems like it is from another era -- it's a font suggesting arrangements by Nelson Riddle.
But that is the point, perhaps. The phrase "The First Lady" can only suggest three things: Ella Fitzgerald ("The First Lady of Song"), Aretha Franklin ("The First Lady of Soul"), and, well, the actual First Lady -- implied by the stars emblazoned on the disc itself. With The First Lady, Faith Evans is not only bidding for independence from Sean Combs but also for classic status. Most of the album is aimed straight at the heart of the R&B market rather than the hip-hop crowd, laying in track after track of mid-tempo neo-soul drenched in Fender Rhodes grooves, string patches, and densely harmonized choruses that put Evans in the realm of Alicia Keys and Jill Scott rather than Mary J. Blige. The question -- and the gamble that Capitol Records is wondering about -- is how well Evans plays as a neo-soul goddess rather than a bling-bling girl.
First things first: the young lady from Newark, New Jersey can certainly sing. "Mesmerized" is a piece of real JB-esque organ funk that allows Faith to testify as lead singer and then play call-and-response with her own overdubbed gospel chorus. It is a greasy-hot performance that never goes over the top into American Idol melismatic mania or silly high note reaching. When she asks, "Ain't it funky now?", you answer a resounding YES. Similarly, on tracks like "Again" and "Until You Came" Evans traffics in the kind of retro-soul groove that puts in the mind of the City of Brotherly Love -- lush harmonies and slow-jam vocals that could almost be at home on an oldies station on a Saturday night.
The arrangements on much of the record cleverly suggest the 1970s while using modern production and sound. "I Don't Need It" possesses a swelling string section held up by a popping electric bass, yet the percussion track and lead vocal style are just contemporary enough to dodge a total retro feel. Still, when Evans sings "I believe it" in some mad jazzy four-part harmony, the track distinguishes itself from anything you've heard from, say, Beyonce.
Comparing The First Lady to recent work by Erykah Badu and Jill Scott shows you what Evans and her producers are up to. Evans is a more ethereal singer than Scott or Badu -- a vocalist who reaches up for a reedy high note that oozes relaxation and never seems to be lecturing you on gospel prowess like Whitney. Evans makes a track like "Stop N Go" seem like a slice of easy pleasure where Scott or Badu would have you cruising closer to the ground. Jill Scott coasts closer to jazz on her material, phrasing like Sarah Vaughan, while Erykah Badu courts a nastier kind of techno funk. Evans -- with more contemporary phrasing than Scott and an easier, light touch than Badu -- lays out a kind neo-soul that reminds you of the past without seeming like a nostalgia trip.
It seems, then, that Capitol would have won this bet if had just been bolder. The least pleasing tracks on The First Lady are those where Evans and her handlers hedged their bets, pairing her with star guests/producers who could give the album its hip-hop angle. The first track, "Goin' Out", is a generic duet with Pharrell Williams, featuring a rap chorus by Pusha T. Though the track starts with a classic horn driven intro, as soon as Evans starts repetitively singing "me and my girls are going out tonight" over a slippery synth line, you feel yourself in the presence of some pretty ordinary material. The song's hook catches you through repetition rather than beauty or melodic invention, and by the time the rap starts you've had more than enough.
"Ever Wonder" is more successful -- a duet with Mario Winans that features a clean slab of hip-hop production by Winans. But the song should be on another album -- one where 10 other songs with more expressive and lush vocals don't surround it. Even the studio literature describes this track as a bid for radio play, but it's hard to understand why this track would outshine something fresh and gospel-melodic like "Get Over You".
The album ends with "Hope", a feature for rapper Twista set against a slow acoustic guitar track. Evans supplies the gospel chorus and some obbligato around that chorus, but it is an odd way to end a collection that seems like a bid to make her the kind star that Aretha once was. Faith -- you don't get any R.E.S.P.E.C.T. by subordinating yourself to someone else's talent.
By the time you've absorbed her past, her new label, her cover, her album title, and then the mostly fresh music behind it all, you should be largely won over by Faith Evans's genuine talent. The market needs more soul music that pulsates with real feeling. And while it doesn't need another faceless Pharrell tune or another guest rap, The First Ladyboasts enough old-school groove to make it sound new and fresh in 2005.