The King & I, the recently released duets album between Faith Evans and her late husband, the Notorious B.I.G., was conceived with a strong sense of purpose.
In an interview with USA Today, she explained: “It’s an extension of my job and my duty to extend his legacy. The fact that I’m able to do this record and talk about our love, our experiences and that anybody even cares about it, that represents a legacy.”
Though the former Mrs. Biggie Smalls may feel a sense of duty to extend the legacy of the iconic rapper, his legacy is cemented and has long proved itself to be enduring. Biggie may have released only two studio albums while alive, but each is considered a classic and, thus, will only strengthen his legend with time. If anything, his posthumous projects, Born Again and Duets: The Final Chapter, while not necessarily tainting his legacy, didn’t do it any favors, either. Born Again had its moments, namely “Dead Wrong,” but overall it and particularly Duets leaves listeners with reminders about the virtues of knowing when to leave well enough alone.
It’s a shame that The King & I wasn’t made 10, 15 years ago, when it conceivably could have been viewed and heard as more timely and with greater urgency. So while the album may have been recorded with the best and purest of intentions, great intentions don’t contribute much with respect to replay value. It’s not a terrible album, but for the most part, it sounds dated and, overall, does not play to either of their strengths.
Evans sings mostly over Biggie’s best-known verses as well as rarely heard other material—specifically, tracks he recorded for Junior M.A.F.I.A. members Lil’ Kim and Lil’ Cease for various projects. Evans also used audio lifted from old home videos of Biggie’s mom, Violetta Wallace, for the endearing interludes heard throughout the album. Again, there are many sweet moments like that, but that doesn’t mean the music grabs you.
Much of it is music you would hear at a cookout, only very early in the day, when the meat is still being grilled. Hell, the meat might have just started being seasoned and marinated. No one should bother pretending not to know exactly what is meant here.
Case in point: “When We Party,” featuring Snoop Dogg, in which Evans sings lines like, “Ain’t no party like a West Coast party ’cause a West Coast party don’t stop.” Faith, I love you, but this ain’t it. It’s not a compliment to the glorious “Going Back to Cali.” It’s like a cat-daddy spin of it, only from a cat daddy trying way too hard.
If you are a fan of Evans, you know she can offer so much more than that.
The same goes for “NYC,” featuring Jadakiss, which sounds like a remake of another remake of a track released in 1995 as a B-side.
There’s also the track “Lovin’ You for Life,” featuring Lil’ Kim, which is mostly powerful because after so many years of animosity (mostly on Kim’s end), these two managed to collaborate on a song in which both wife and girlfriend profess their love for the same man. It’s better than most of the songs that more or less build around some repurposed Biggie lyric, but it suffers from Kim’s verse lasting mere seconds. Then again, just hearing these two together, and Evans actually singing along with Lil’ Kim, is an achievement in itself.
If any listeners cling to The King & I, it will be the most ardent fans whose love and appreciation will lead them to see any new material as vital. For the rest of us who already love what we’ve been given, the album’s brightest moments are the few in which it’s majorly Evans leading the song, as opposed to merely trying to construct a feeling from leftover vocals from 20 years ago.
On “Somebody Knows,” she opens up about her feelings about his death: her regret for not speaking much to her estranged husband shortly before he was gunned down; her pain over his being taken from her, their children and the world; and her ongoing belief that someone has to know who killed her husband, and her desire to see that truth finally uttered publicly.
Her vocals, raspier than they used to be yet still pleasing to the ear, shine there and on “One in the Same.” However, they don’t leave me with wanting to hear more of the album. Evans clearly wanted to make something that tied her forever with her late husband musically. It’s understandable, regardless of whether you, as a listener, necessarily love what’s been presented.
Nevertheless, as someone who listens to Evans’ phenomenal debut album regularly and continues to appreciate so much of what’s on her second, third, fourth and fifth albums (not to mention her sublime background vocals on Mary J. Blige’s My Life), I hope that, in the not-too-distant future, Evans produces something that feels more current.
With more contemporary producers, she could easily release something that sounds like both fresh and classic Faith Evans, as her past collaborator Blige recently has. Or she could return to the people who helped produce her best music for something that screams classic Faith Evans, or even a soul-funk album.
In other words, for Evans, The King & I may have been “my duty,” but the album leaves me more curious to see what she will do when she decides to look forward, as opposed to looking back.