With her powerful, honeyed soprano and talent for songwriting and record production, Faith Renée Evans is one of R&B's all-time greats, despite her name forever being linked to hip hop through her association with Bad Boy Records and her marriage to the rap legend, the Notorious B.I.G. Evans became known as the First Lady of Bad Boy after Sean "Puffy" Combs signed her to his influential label in 1994. The same year, Evans married Christopher Wallace — aka the Notorious BIG — and found herself at the center of the bitter East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry, which would claim the lives of Wallace and his great rival, Tupac Shakur, in 1996-97.
Mother to Wallace's son, CJ (Evans already had a daughter, Chyna, and later had two more sons, Joshua and Ryder), she was eventually able to move on with her life and channel her heartbreak into her music — notably on her Grammy-winning tribute to her late husband, "I'll Be Missing You," a collaboration with Combs and the band 112. She has released six solo albums in the course of a stellar career, plus a duets album with the Notorious B.I.G, using posthumous recordings of the late rapper, in May 2017. "I feel it's my duty to uphold and extend [Biggie's] legacy, especially his musical contributions," she said prior to its release. "This project is my creative reflection of the love we had and the bond we will always have."
The first time Faith Evans sang in public, she was three years old. She overcame her nerves to belt out "Let the Sunshine In," from the musical Hair, to the congregation of her local place of worship, Emanuel Baptist Church, in Newark. She recalled the moment in her 2008 memoir, Keep the Faith: "After seeing the reaction of my first audience, I knew I would be a singer. I knew I'd found my calling."
Evans had been living in Newark since before her first birthday. She was born in Lakeland, Florida. Her mom, Helene, was 18 years old, "barely out of high school", and living in Dade City, Florida, with her twin sister, Hope, and their younger siblings, Missy and Morgan. Evans' father, Richard Swain, was out of the picture by the time she was born. She has never met him. He is white, hence Evans' light complexion, but as she wrote in Keep the Faith, "I was raised 100 percent black and have always considered myself a black woman."
With Helene under pressure from the demands of being a young single mother, two older cousins, Mae and Bob Kennedy, offered to look after Evans. They were a kind-hearted couple that fostered a lot of children, and Evans went to live with them in their bustling house in the Weequahic area of Newark. She often referred to them as her grandparents, rather than have to explain to people her complex family story. The Kennedys did their best to shelter Evans from some of the harsher realities of life in 1970s Newark, which was suffering economically in wake of the 1967 riots. "Unfortunately," Evans wrote, "some of the characters in and out of the house were just as suspicious as the people my grandparents were trying to protect me from on the street."
Evans became obsessed with her mom's record collection on visits to Florida, rifling through albums by Donna Summer, Earth Wind and Fire and Anita Ward. She did the same at her Aunt Hope's house in Linden, Jersey, a few miles away from the Kennedys' home. Between her aunt and her mom, she was exposed to everything from Jimi Hendrix to Joni Mitchell to 1980s house acts like Gwen Guthrie, CeCe Rogers and Colonel Abrahams.
When Evans was 14, she sang in a touring gospel group, The Spiritual Uplifters, which performed in New York, Philadelphia and Connecticut. Its organizer, Sister Wilson, had some music-industry contacts and landed Evans a minor role in a Boogie Down Productions video for the 1989 single "You Must Learn," in which she played a student. It was her first brush with the world of hip hop. It wouldn't be her last.
After graduating from high school in 1991, Evans attended Fordham University in New York City on a full scholarship to study marketing but dropped out after a year. Soon after, she had her daughter, Chyna, with the music producer Kiyamma Griffin. The young family moved to LA for a while, but the relationship didn't work out, and Evans returned to Newark as a single mom, moving back in with Mae and Bob Kennedy. She found regular session work, earning $2,000 per week singing background vocals on demo tapes for R&B artists including Al B Sure and Christopher Williams. This got her noticed by a young impresario, Sean "Puffy" Combs, who had set up a label, Bad Boy Records, in 1993. Through Combs, Evans co-wrote lyrics for Mary J Blige, and songs for Usher's self-titled debut album, released in 1994. That year, she became the first female artist to get signed by Bad Boy Records.
In the summer of 1994, Evans met another up-and-coming artist, Christopher Wallace, aka the Notorious B.I.G, at a photo shoot for Bad Boy — and within a mere eight days of knowing each other, , they were married. The ceremony was on August 4th in Rockland County, upstate New York; the bride wore a sleeveless white dress, the groom wore jeans and Timberlands. After the ceremony they stopped to eat at a diner, before Biggie returned to Brooklyn and Evans headed to Jersey to pick up Chyna from her preschool nursery.
"It wasn't the most traditional way to start a life together," she wrote in Keep the Faith. "Smoking weed on the way to our wedding and stopping for greasy french fries on the way home. And we didn't even have plans for a household setup."
Evans was 21 years old. Her new husband was 22. Their marriage did not get off to the ideal start: they hardly saw each other. Evans was ensconced in a Brooklyn studio working on her first album; Wallace was away on tour — and, it would later transpire, was not being faithful to his wife.
A year after she was married, Evans released her debut solo album, Faith, in August 1995. She had written, or co-written, every song on the album except one (a cover of Rose Royce's "Love Don't Live Here Anymore"). The album was produced by the in-house Bad Boy production team The Hitmen, headed by Combs himself, and yielded four singles, the first two of which, "You Used to Love Me" and "Soon as I Get Home," were gold-certified hits. Faith would go on to sell more than one million copies in the US alone and be certified platinum by the RIAA.
In October 1995, while Evans was working in Los Angeles, she was invited to record with Tupac Shakur. The rapper had recently been released from prison and had signed to Death Row records, which was embroiled in an ugly beef with Bad Boy Records in New York — the label home of both Evans and the Notorious BIG. At the time, Evans was not aware that Tupac had signed for Death Row. Neither did she appreciate that Shakur believed her husband had been behind an attempt on his life in November 1994 — this being the pre-smartphone era, when rumours were slower to travel. Evans simply recalled that Wallace had always professed “mad love” for Shakur, as the pair had been friends before they became rivals. She did know that there had been tension between the two labels but hadn’t given the politics of her singing for Shakur much thought until she arrived at the recording studio and “realized there were a bunch of Death Row people there, so kind of in my mind I started figuring it out right there.”
Shakur was recording his debut album for Death Row records, All Eyez on Me, on which he embraced the gangsta rap lifestyle. But Evans’ contribution to the track "Wonda Why They Call U Bitch" never appeared on the album because, perhaps unsurprisingly, Death Row could not reach an agreement with Evans’ label, Bad Boy, to permit its use. Evans would later recall in her book, and in an interview with MTV, that she was asked to go to a hotel room after the recording session to pick up her $25,000 fee from Tupac. While she was there, he propositioned her “in a very surprising and offensive way,” but Evans refused. “This is totally not how I operate,” she wrote.
For his part, Shakur would go on to boast that he had been intimate with Evans. “Biggie stole my lyrics… he touched my style, I touched his wife,” Shakur told The Source magazine in March 1996. And he repeated his claim in more lurid fashion months later in June on the diss track aimed at Wallace, "Hit Em Up." But three months after that, Shakur was dead, killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas on September 13th. Conspiracy theories abound to this day, but the murder has never been solved.
Six months after Tupac was murdered, the Notorious B.I.G was shot dead in Los Angeles, on March 9, 1997. By this time he had separated from Evans, following several infidelities including a year-long affair with the rapper Lil Kim. Both Wallace and Evans had moved on to new relationships. So much gossip had surrounded their high-profile marriage that Evans felt as if she had "taken a beating in the court of public opinion," she wrote in Keeping the Faith. Evans had also been in Los Angeles on the night of Wallace's murder, and had even seen him at a party earlier that evening. She had given birth to Wallace's son, CJ, four months earlier.
In her book, Evans recalled arriving at the Cedars-Sinal Medical Center after the shooting, to be told of her husband's death. "The enormity of what happened started to slip over me and I began to shake uncontrollably. For some reason, I didn't cry, I just panicked... Someone led me to a chair. I sat down. And I wept quietly.... My husband and the father of my newborn son was dead."
Like that of Tupac Shakur, the murder of the Notorious B.I.G has never been solved.
In the wake of Wallace's murder, Combs helped Evans produce a tribute song, "I'll Be Missing You," which used the melody from the Police's song "Every Breath You Take." Released on May 27, 1997, "I'll Be Missing You" went to No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, and in 1998 won a Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.
Her second album, Keep the Faith, came out in September 1998, and was certified platinum the following year. It yielded four singles, including two Top Ten hits — "Love Like This," which was built around a sampled loop from the disco band Chic and won a Grammy nomination for Best Female R&B Performance; and "All Night Long," which sampled Unlimited Touch's 1980 hit, "I Hear Music in the Streets."
During the summer of 1998, Evans married the record company executive Todd Russaw, to whom she had been introduced by Missy Elliott after separating from Wallace. They had their first son, Joshua, on June 8, 1998. A second son, Ryder, would follow on March 22, 2007. The couple announced their divorce in 2011 citing irreconcilable differences.
Russaw was executive producer and creative partner on Evans's third album, Faithfully, released on November 6, 2001. Other producers Evans collaborated with this time around included the Neptunes, Diddy protégé Mario Winans, Havoc from the hip hop duo Mobb Deep and former 2Pac producer Battlecat. The album would be certified gold by the RIAA the following year. It was her last album for Bad Boy — she left the label in 2003, the same year she appeared in the film The Fighting Temptations, an MTV-produced romantic comedy that also starred Cuba Gooding Jr. and Beyoncé Knowles. Evans played a single mother in the film, and recorded a cover of Donna Summer's "Heaven Knows" for its soundtrack.
After leaving Bad Boy, Evans signed with Capitol Records and released her fourth album, The First Lady, on April 5, 2005. Although this was her first record in four years, she showed little sign of ring-rustiness to deliver another top-drawer collection of smooth R&B and classy pop-soul; the album peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, her highest album chart position to date. At the end of the year, she released a festive album, A Faithful Christmas. It would be her last album for Capitol, as a result of its merger with Virgin Records in 2007, which led to cuts to the artist roster.
In July 2005, a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department, which had been filed by Evans and Wallace's mother, Voletta, in 2002, collapsed after a federal judge, Florence Marie-Cooper, declared a mistrial. The LAPD stood accused of intentionally withholding evidence linking rogue police officers to the Notorious B.I.G's murder. An amended lawsuit was re-filed using new evidence in 2007, but another federal judge, Jacqueline Nguyen, dismissed it in April 2010.
Evans took a five-year break from recording after her Christmas album, returning in 2010 with her own record label, Prolific Music Group. Through her label she released her fifth studio album, Something About Faith, in October 2010. Guests included Snoop Dogg, Raekwon, Redman and Keyshia Cole. It debuted at No. 15 on the Billboard 200 chart.
In 2012 Evans co-executive-produced and became a cast member for the reality-TV show R&B Divas: Atlanta. Her sixth solo album, Incomparable, came out in November 2014. Its lead single, "I Deserve It," featured guest raps from Missy Elliott and her protégée, Sharaya J.
In May 2017, Evans released The King and I, an album of duets with her late husband, the Notorious B.I.G. It blends Evans' vocals with rare and unheard verses from Wallace, with a stellar roster of guests including the rapper's mom Voletta, the producers Salaam Remi, DJ Premier and Chucky Thompson (although the main producer is Evans herself), and the rappers Lil Cease, Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes and — a surprise to many — Lil Kim, her one-time nemesis: the rapper with whom Wallace famously cheated on Evans.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Evans told Billboard in March 2017 that she felt it was "important" to include Lil Kim on the track "Lovin You For Life." "I told her to say how she felt about him... keep it real, it's well documented that we both loved Biggie," Evans said. "Obviously our fans have been waiting for that collaboration to happen. I know Biggie would be really proud of it."
(Profile photo of Faith Evans by Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)