It's hard to tell where Evans is headed at this point, given the many directions in which she's been tugged throughout her career. She began as a fairly straightforward soul/R&B crooner, but her involvement with the Notorious B.I.G., whom she married in 1995, and the Artist Formerly Known As Puff Daddy, who latched onto her professionally at about the same time, meant she had to pay allegiance to the gangsta movement -- among the least romantic musical forms imaginable. Still-unsubstantiated rumors that she once split the sheets with Tupac Shakur subsequently painted her as a floozy, and Biggie's 1997 murder added professional widowhood to her burden, even though she was separated from him at the time of his expiration. Keep the Faith, a 1998 solo album cut after the dust cleared, carved a middle path between these extremes, and it did so with uncommon success -- but Faithfully is so all over the map that it's astounding Evans finds her way as often as she does.
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The disc's scattershot tone is largely the fault of her myriad handlers -- led, as usual, by the irrepressible P. Diddy. To his credit, the once and former Sean Combs gave Evans considerable elbow room on Keep the Faith. But this time around, he thrusts himself into the proceedings from the very beginning by making the intro more about him than the alleged star of the show, placing "Alone in the World" -- a tune that can't help but recall the Notorious one -- directly thereafter, and shoving one of his typically tepid raps into the third track, "You Gets No Love." Give it a rest, P.
Other producers on hand -- the Neptunes, Chucky Thompson and Battlecat among them -- toss in their contributions as well, leading to some quizzical shifts in style. Included are some semi-clumsy nods to disco on "Burnin' Up" and, especially, "Back to Love," plus a series of so-called interludes that encompass faux-Whitney rafter-rattling ("Everything"), a gospel nod ("Faithful") and forced hip-hop ("Ghetto"). The latter finds Evans repeating the phrase "bad boy for life" with conviction rather than frustration, which only goes to show how much of a pro she is.
So why isn't the disc a catastrophe? Because despite the numerous attempts by outsiders to shape her personality, Evans manages to maintain a vibrant sense of self. Her voice is rich and convincing, and she uses it to good effect on a wide range of material, including the evocative "I Love You," which sports a prominent Isaac Hayes sample; the jazzy, heartfelt "Do Your Time"; and "Brand New Man," a rub-your-face-in-it yarn from soul's old school. Moreover, she acquits herself well even on tracks whose arrangements seem to have been imposed on her by a committee. She may not get a vote, but she usually gets the last laugh.
For all its strong moments, though, Faithfully can't help but leave a listener wondering: How good could Evans be if she were allowed to do it for herself?