Total and Faith Evans

Total
Kima, Keisha & Pam
Bad Boy

Faith Evans
Keep the Faith
Bad Boy

BIGGIE SMALLS'S MURDER hardly stalled Bad Boy's financial growth, and the end of Papa's profitable postmortem isn't any reason to unload your stocks in Puffy Inc., either. Sure, Sean "Puffy" Combs has lost his sole potential career artist, and Will Friggin' Smith has co-opted both his ability to swallow disco riffs whole and his high-rolling glitz--after all, Fresh Will's a movie star. But like the gifted, enterprising show promoter he was before his bankroll entitled him to exorcise his paranoia alongside Jimmy Page on Saturday Night Live, the Puffy of these two vanity projects is all business. The second record by Total and the debut by Biggie's honey, Faith Evans, are part of the timeless R&B tradition: the baiting of sure-shot hits with pleasurable filler.

The fierce sistahood conveyed by the heavy-lidded squints and Angela Bassett-pursed lips that Kima, Keisha, and Pam sport on their album cover might be more credible if the ladies posed in the same order that their names are listed in their group photo. Then again, with Madame Missy Elliot devising such deliciously smutty odes to sexual availability, maybe not. "There Will Be No #!*@ Tonight" doesn't rule out hand jobs. Consider the expert Missybeat in which she drenches Total a debt repaid; she and Timbaland couldn't have brought the current R&B renaissance its belated critical recognition if Puffy hadn't already made it safe again for MCs to dance in public.

Give the exec-producer his due: Both the cheerfully pro forma "Rock Track" and the Curtis Mayfield horn sample for the moodily sultry "Press Rewind" sport his incriminating fingerprints. And if the rest owes more to production collaborator Mario Winans...well, I ask you, did Versace personally sew his clothing line by hand? But damn if Heavy D doesn't arrange the weirdest track here: a gutbucket guitar, courtesy of Rotary Connection's "Memory Band," scraping against beats that tumble into dubwise echo. (P.S. Special thanks to whomever decided to bury the obligatory Diane Warren excrescence at album's close.)

Evans is granted that same reprieve--and a less odoriferous Warren tune to boot. She also teams with Babyface and Kelly Price for some winning slow stuff. (Did Faith or Kelly pen the killer reminiscence, "If you never know just what you mean/You are my first love"?) If her collaborations result in more stately ballads than I'd expect from Aretha, at least Evans is gifted with one of the few genuinely grown-up voices on the radio, as well as an ability to pull off hopefully soulful chin-up exercises that are admittedly enhanced by her status as hip hop's most famous widow. By comparison, both Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill sound like girls forced by circumstances to front adulthood, and Faith's got less use for long-suffering Tammy Wynette fidelity shit than both--and a more reliable sense of pitch than either. And though discophiles and discophobes alike may demur, "Love Like This" is Puffy's spriest pure R&B moment to date: Slowing the "Chic Cheer" groove to a cannily syncopated grind and supplying the melody that Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards forgot to write, he rewrites disco history as if to say, "Get jiggy wit' this."

 
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