Faith Evans obviously spent a lot of time with Jill Scott’s debut. No crime in that; we all did. And for good reason: Scott gave the genre of the urban woman’s confessional in song—the blues by any other name—license to wax poetic, spin prolix narrative recitative, and elasticize melody like Bird and Sarah Vaughan were in the house. If Mary J. Blige brought the sound of pain and suffering back into the mix, Scott displayed how much introspection and harmony that wail could contain. Her raising of r&b’s art bar undoubtedly helped Evans aim high, making The First Lady her tightest set yet—song for song, production is crisp, ingenious, and bumping; lyrics meet the Chaka Khan criteria in communicating a complete thought; and Evans, often mistaken for a Blige without pitch issues, owns her emotions and isn’t afraid to paint romantic pictures of them that leave pathos for the tabloids.
While her well-known backstory as Biggie’s widow could have made for more melodrama, Evans brings ebullience and the secret of joy instead. The world expects Black women to carry tragedy like it wasn’t nothing but a spare tire, to come out swinging and shining when it’s raining inside, but Evans doesn’t sound like she’s pretending for the public. There’s a bodacious lilt and effervescence to her vocals that suggest her life off-mic is better than ever. Mad kudos to the producers, especially the unknown-to-me pair of Ivan Orthodox Barias and Carvin Rassum Higgins—we’re loving all the old-school changes and funkdafied ear candy, fellas. Plus the steel-pan air that makes you want to whirl about the room like Fred and Ginger on “Jealous,” the Andy Summers-ish guitar that supports “Ever Wonder,” and the duet with additional producer Mario Winans all give up rock attitude without the faux-rock bombast common to these fusions.
The Scott influence is strongest on “Catching Feelings” and “Get Over You,” where songbird Evans floats heart-wrenched, goose-bumped feelings on resilient gossamer wings. For the born-again there’s the closing “Hope,” strangely credited Twista Featuring Faith—until you hear motormouth come out the box from the giddyup, spitting a bevy of mile-a-minute verses about God and the ghetto while Evans supplies the gorgeous, uplifting hook. Weakest is the Pharrell-produced opener, “Goin’ Out”—more video concept than tune and surely meant to display how 30-pounds-lighter Evans is ready to compete in our telegenic, bootylicious Blackpop world, where body-by-Beyoncé currently trumps jazzing-like-Jill.