faith evans still communicates with the spirit of her late husband biggie smalls
The R&B legend talks to i-D about 'The King & I,' her forthcoming duet album with The Notorious B.I.G.
Photography Alex Aristei
When Faith Evans first met Notorious B.I.G. at a Bad Boy Records photo shoot in 1994, she was charmed. He fought to get her phone number and didn't ask her — he instead declared — that one day "I'm gonna marry you."
She didn't think it would be so soon; they literally tied the knot days after their first meeting. And now, 20 years after the rapper's passing, Evans is releasing a long-awaited duet album that shares their complicated love story.
Slated for release on May 19, two days before Biggie's birthday, The King & I is a 25-track album that mixes rare and unreleased vocals by the legendary rapper with new vocals by Evans and a cast of collaborators. "With the sequence of the songs, I wanted it to feel like a movie, to feel the progression of the relationship, a roller coaster, which it was," said Evans.
It all came about years ago when Evans was having a conversation with Biggie's mother, Voletta Wallace. She was inspired to take Biggie's old recordings and lay new vocal tracks over them, creating a duet album 20 years after his death. It's a similar to the approach that Natalie Cole took in making her late father Nat King Cole's recording of "Unforgettable." "I remember watching the music video for that song and thinking 'that's very clever,'" Evans tells me over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. "I wondered if I could do something like that with Biggie, it was just a thought."
Three years ago, she picked up the idea again. Evans, a Grammy award-winning R&B singer who was the first woman signed to Puff Daddy's Bad Boy Records in 1994, started fishing around for Biggie's old a capellas and freestyles on YouTube and met with the gatekeepers of his master tapes. Sure enough, they were into it. "That's how things ended up working out," she said. "It came together so seamlessly."
The album includes songs with Snoop Dogg, like the track "When We Party," and "NYC," which features Jadakiss alongside a radio freestyle by Biggie. There are angelic harmonies courtesy of 1990s R&B icons 112, as well as up-and-comers Kevin McCall and Chyna Tahjere alongside Evans's own harmonies which call to mind her hits from the 1990s like "You Used To Love Me" and "Ain't Nobody."
There are also narrative interludes with Voletta Wallace, Biggie's mother - who was at first skeptical about meeting Evans, since she married her son without her knowledge. "She probably thought I was some girl who just heard he had a record deal, since Biggie came out of nowhere all in love," recalls Evans. "I said, 'Don't hide me from your mom.'"
Wallace's vocals are taken from unreleased documentary footage Evans shot a few years back. "I had my videographer go over to her house with me, we spoke about our relationship," said Evans. "This is how God works out this album. I had this light bulb go off and say, 'Hey, you've got all this footage.' I chopped it up, went into the studio and put music behind it. They became these beautiful interludes."
One of the most compelling songs on the album is "Ten Wife Commandments," which is a reinterpretation of Biggie's track "Ten Crack Commandments," from his album Life After Death. The song acts like wise advice for young women (and comes off a bit like the famed dating bible The Rules). As Evans sings about what it takes to be a great wife, she says her commandments are "don't talk about what you do in the bedroom," "always say 'I love you' when he leaves the house" and "separate your feelings from your bank account," among others.
Evans watched her relationship with Biggie fall apart during their three-year marriage, between 1994 and 1997, as gossip surfaced about his affairs with other women, including Lil' Kim. It didn't help there were rumors she was hanging out with the west coast rapper Tupac Shakur. The track "Lovin' You For Life," featuring Lil' Kim, has Evans and Kim both reminiscing about loving Biggie, covering everything from their arguments to what it was like kissing Notorious B.I.G.
More than anything else, Evans wants to share Biggie's legacy with this album. "It's my creative expression of our love story," she says. "The ups and downs, the in betweens, the beginning, the end. That's all I can do. Its communicating Big's authenticity. He is still just a powerful presence and his talent is so magical."
A few times, Evans felt like her late husband's spirit visited her in the studio. "He told me a few times he is proud of what I did," she says. "Towards the end of one recording, I went over and gave a hug to one of the writers I was working with. I was like, 'I think Big just told me to come over and hug you, he's proud.' And I started crying. And I'm not a crier. I've felt that feeling once or twice since then. I know I can feel proud, of not only what I accomplished but also my extension of his legacy. I think it's something he'll be proud of even when I'm not here anymore."
The last song on the album is a track called "It Was Worth It," a lullaby-like ballad reminiscing about what it felt like when they first met, the fights they had, and how there is "no time to apologize." "His spirit and his being has maintained in my life personally," Evans says. "Big is the real spirit of hip-hop."
Hip-hop is not an easy game to break into, especially for women. It's competitive, and not the most feminist atmosphere. In lyrics, women are frequently treated as intellectually inferior (Big Sean's "IDFWU") or gold diggers (Kanye West's "Gold digger") or sex objects (Nelly's "Tip Drill"), and violence against women is often condoned (as in Eminem's "Kim"). But Evans, who has always been a powerful role model, has advice for young musicians entering the industry. "Success doesn't always pan out in the form that we think, so just keep pushing," she said. "Stay true to things that feel good. There are going to be some challenges but God is not going to put you there if that's not where you belong. Rather than sleeping with the CEO, think: 'I know I have a good talent.' Let that be what opens doors for you."
Text Nadja Sayej
Photography Alex Aristei