The murder of the Notorious B.I.G. in 1997 turned his estranged wife, Faith Evans, into the first widow of hip-hop soul. Evans was already an established artist, thanks to feline soul hits like ”You Used to Love Me.” B.I.G.’s passing delayed the completion of Keep the Faith and has colored Evans’ musical output since, like the moving chorus Evans contributed to her mentor Puff Daddy’s Sting-powered B.I.G. memorial, ”I’ll Be Missing You.” It’s easy to read Keep the Faith through the prism of that tragedy, and Evans makes it easier. ”Lately I,” for example, initially sounds like a love ballad until the lyrics — more suicide note than slow jam — kick in: ”Lately I don’t want to see the morning sun/Lately I’m not much good to anyone,” Evans moans.
Keep the Faith remains commercial R&B, all bedroom strings and Babyface-style acoustic accents. What sets Evans apart is that she, like her soul sista Mary J. Blige, investigates her pain in a way that contradicts the lush sonics. Grief isn’t the only thing Evans has to offer, though. She blends gospel’s range with jazzy innovation on the Stevie Wonder-ous ”My First Love,” capturing a surprising emotional spectrum. It’s a far richer palette than her slicker peers offer; then again, we forget that Stevie, Marvin, and Aretha’s soul was considered ”commercial” too. While Evans hasn’t hit their heights, efforts like this give us faith that she might. A-