Most big R&B stars overreach at some point, sometimes because they take bad advice but more often because of pure ego. Over her 10-year career, Faith Evans has been an exception to that tendency, because for her, the act of emoting soulfully for a living seems to be a privilege, not a divine right.
No further proof is needed than "The First Lady," a CD that sounds remarkably humble despite its title. It's not her term, anyway. The industry gave it to her -- with the appendage "of hip-hop soul" -- after she started running in the same circles as Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Notorious B.I.G. back in the mid-1990s. She's still known as Biggie's widow, even though she married her chief musical collaborator, Todd Russaw, a while back.
Faith Evans controls the mood on her new CD "The First Lady" with a balance of good mid-tempo numbers, grooves and ballads.
But all the drama and the sorrow barely matter at this point, because on "The First Lady" it's the stability that counts. She even makes a point to dismiss the aftereffects of being convicted with Russaw on drug charges last year after Georgia police found cocaine and marijuana in their car. "In ATL I caught a case / And the media tried to say / I had a habit I couldn't manage / And I'm throwin' my life away / Yeah, but everything ain't what it seems / Just because it's on TV / 'Cause they speculate and exaggerate / For a better story," she sings during the bittersweet single "Again." The point is that she's still whole, if not totally wholesome.
But she's also not a sex kitten or a bling freak, and as a housewife, she's not yet desperate, either. Instead of trying to stretch or redefine herself with each song, Evans chooses narratives that make sense: She plays a cautious lover ("Stop N Go," "Jealous"), a low-key party girl ("Lucky Day," "Goin' Out") and a worried-but-grateful partner ("I Don't Need It") without trying to kill the melodies or oversell her womanly strengths. If anything, most of the songs on "The First Lady" are about wondering if someone or something else might be coming first for her man.
The production -- mostly by the duo of Carvin "Ransum" Haggins and Ivan "Orthodox" Barias, with Jermaine Dupri, the Neptunes and others checking in -- has its soft spots, often when Evans sinks too far into a ballad ("Tru Love," "Catching Feelings"). But the mid-tempo numbers are plentiful, and they always seem to put "The First Lady" right where it should be: on the cusp of old-school references and modern pop techniques, with Evans carefully controlling the mood.
But she can break it down, too, and when she does, the disc offers the kind of sizzle that only comes with experience. On "Mesmerized," which rides on a blessedly simple retro-funk groove, Evans goes through a full workout of you-put-that-thang-on-me exclamations. But she manages to forcefully project her libido without losing total control. If she did, it would be a cheap indulgence -- and worse yet, it would contradict everything "The First Lady" strives to construct.