There may be other working mothers chilling in Naked Sushi at two in the afternoon, but none have lived the life of Faith Evans. She leaves her black toy-filled Denali SUV, equipped with a car seat for 1½-year-old son Ryder, and smiles as she enters the trendy Marina del Rey restaurant. The place is convenient to Evans’s Venice Beach home, and SoCal seems to agree with her. Freckles emphasize her sun-kissed cheeks, and her soft, golden-brown curls have been air-dried, as if she just hopped out of a swimming pool—which, in fact, she has. Without lipstick, her signature pout isn’t evident, save for the beauty marks that stood out on the cover of her platinum-selling debut CD, Faith.

Today the Grammy Award—winning singer, once known for furs and shiny catsuits, pairs a casual emerald-green sundress with a white capelet and gladiator sandals. She has just dropped off her son Christopher, 11, at a local junior high school so he can take an entrance exam. If he makes the cut, next year he may don a Catholic school uniform, not unlike the costume he wears playing his dad at a young age in the film Notorious. The movie comes out in 2009 and chronicles the life and 1997 death of his father, Christopher Wallace, aka The Notorious B.I.G.

Placing her shades on the bar and her black Balenciaga bag aside, Faith, 35, makes conversation with the chef as he whips up her raw fish favorites, jalapeño yellowtail and spicy tuna roll, which she’ll wash down with sake, a glass of Sapporo and a ginger ale. Though Faith wears a full figure well on her 5-foot, 6-inch frame, she says she’s dieting. She’s gearing up for the book tour for her explosive new memoir, which will briefly take her away from her husband–manager, Todd Russaw, and the children (daughter Chyna, 15, and son Joshua, 10, round out the brood). And although she’s still in laid-back California mode, there’s nothing calm about Keep the Faith (Grand Central Publishing), hitting shelves this month. Caution: The singer covers ground that’s been widely reported in various hip-hop magazines, so the cameo appearances by rappers Lil’ Kim and Charli Baltimore, Bad Boy Records impresario Sean “Puffy” Combs, Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliott and others will give the feeling of “been there, done that.” However, it’s refreshing to see what Faith saw during this music revolution through her often unheralded role as a forceful talent and leading lady in a sometimes tawdry soap opera. But why tell her story now? Faith says Russaw encouraged her to write the book (penned with Aliya S. King): “‘People don’t know the real story,’ he told me. ‘One day, you’re going to have to tell it,'” she explains. “Everybody’s not going to accept the real story, but it’s my story.”

If there’s a familiar thread in Evans’s life, it’s her shyness and tendency to avoid confrontation, which is ironic, given her presence during some of the most explosive moments of hip-hop’s heyday. Music is what took her to the hip-hop life, because it came easy to this complicated girl, born in Lakeland, Florida, to Helene Evans, a Black singer, and a music-loving man (who is rumored to be White, though Faith never met him and doesn’t know for sure), and raised in Newark, New Jersey. She found her voice at Emmanuel Baptist Church Incorporated in Newark and kept on singing. “As a child I always shied away from conflict or when people were fighting,” she recollects in Keeping the Faith. “I didn’t really fight a whole lot. I’m not that way; I’m not trying to have bruises.” Yet Faith was drawn to guys with an edge, like “J.T.,” her first boyfriend, who was older, a drug dealer and abusive. While still in her teens, she dealt with an STD, had multiple abortions, and became involved with a married man. But she remained focused and earned a full ride to Fordham University in New York—only to give up her education after falling in love with Kiyamma Griffin, a local musician. When Faith learned she was pregnant, Griffin insisted she keep the child, and they moved to Los Angeles.

The relationship didn’t last, and Evans returned to the East Coast, a young, gifted and broke single mom. For a time she collected welfare while living with her grandparents, but she ultimately found steady session work, earning $2,000 a week singing background on demo tapes for the likes of Al B. Sure. Her connection to Griffin eventually led her to Combs, and by 1993 she was writing songs for Usher’s first album and cowriting the lyrics for Mary J. Blige’s “Everyday It Rains.”

Evans developed a thick skin and tough shell, even carrying an unloaded .22 in her purse. “I don’t like being played, so I had to step up,” Faith recalls. Her hard shell would melt when she met the man who would become her first husband at a photo shoot. She drove Biggie and Junior M.A.F.I.A. home to Brooklyn that night and caught him stealing looks at her along the way. “I’ma call you,” she remembers him saying—both bold and presumptuous.

He was true to his word. As we now know, less than two months after their first meeting, Faith and Biggie drove to Rockland County, about an hour upstate from New York City, and married on August 4, 1994. She had just turned 21; he was 22. They smoked weed on the way to their wedding and stopped for greasy French fries on the way home. Soon enough they were hip-hop’s royal couple, and Faith’s first single, “You Used to Love Me,” in 1995, was in constant rotation. Yet she was also a young woman in love, taking care of her family. Biggie was crazy about Chyna, eating Chinese takeout and running deep with his crew. Faith describes her husband as a “fun-loving Brooklyn boy.” For a while, they were happy.

The keep-it-real fairy tale would reach a darker chapter. Rumors abounded that Biggie had cut out on his wife with rapper and protégé Lil’ Kim, then a member of Junior M.A.F.I.A., and Charli Baltimore, a lesser known rapper discovered by Biggie. Faith, who never let her personal life interfere with her career, focused on work. “I still had to maintain my daughter and get her to school. I was still mother hen,” she says.

In 1996 Faith found it hard to turn down an offer to record a song with Tupac Shakur for a self-negotiated $25,000. Now she knows this was not the best move. “I had no idea that Tupac had been signed to Death Row Records,” she writes. “He had only been out of jail a few days when we met at the Hollywood Athletic Club. I hadn’t yet heard that Suge Knight had bailed him out in return for signing to the label and immediately recording an album. If I had known, I would have never in a million years agreed to it.”

Her decision led to a decade-long rumor that she slept with Shakur, which she denies. Even today she becomes unsettled by the topic of Tupac, and when pushed to talk about him, a clearly rattled Faith parses her words carefully. “I didn’t know him. I don’t know what (motivated him). That’s like speaking for someone, and with him being dead, I definitely don’t like trying. I’m glad I got through it the best I could.” Unfortunately, she would not see a dime of the money from the recording.

By that time her marriage to Biggie was strained. She once caught another woman in his hotel room. That same year she picked up her belongings and left their Brooklyn home altogether, opting to live out of hotels with young Chyna in tow, crashing on the couch at the group 112’s Manhattan apartment, while planning to rent her own place in a Manhattan high-rise. During their separation, she would discover he was having an affair with Lil’ Kim after Kim made a bold appearance on Wendy Williams’s popular radio show. Faith called the radio show afterward and defended herself.

Still in love, she and Biggie had occasional romantic reunions, which resulted in the birth of their son Christopher. “Everybody that knows me and knew B.I.G. knew that we had a bond,” says Faith, who was confident that they would patch things up—until that fateful March night in 1997 when a gunman pulled up alongside Biggie’s car while he was waiting at a traffic light. A somber Faith would put her music career on hold until she was tapped later that year along with Combs and 112 to do a tribute to Biggie, a single titled “I’ll Be Missing You.” Eventually she returned to recording and began dating Russaw, the friend who had comforted her on the night of Biggie’s death.

In 2005, when Evans signed with Capitol Records, she had been married to Russaw for seven years. “(Our relationship) was definitely something I started to lean on a lot,” she says. “He was one of the few people that really understood me.”

Life wasn’t exactly drama-free. In January 2004, she and Russaw were arrested in Hapeville, Georgia, with marijuana and cocaine in their car. The couple agreed to enter a 13-week drug intervention program, and after completion the charges were dropped. Still, rumors spread that she was on drugs, which she addressed in “Again,” the first single from her 2005 album “The First Lady.”

But today it looks like Faith has her priorities straight. Number one is her family. As the waitress brings the to-go sushi rolls ordered for Chyna, Faith speaks happily about her life. “Other than the times I take the kids to school and pick them up or go to the grocery store, I’m usually at home,” she says. Although she parted from Los Angeles–based Capitol Records and has no label, she’s staying on the West Coast. “There’s something about seeing the ocean every day that I love,” she says, smiling. This calm helps keep the haters out of sight and out of mind. “Do you know how many different opinions and off-the-wall stories (I hear)? Like, ‘I heard she’s doing bad and she’s about to sell her house.’ I’m just making smarter choices. I’m not trying to have a new car every six months like I used to. I have four kids and I owe the government, and I’ve got to save up to pay my bills.”

She’s a little bit older, and a lot wiser. “With experience, intelligence turns into wisdom,” she says. She pauses for a moment. “Every decision, every option, every choice has to be really based around if it makes sense for my family. We don’t even have a babysitter. I enjoy being able to be that person and no one else.” With that, she settles into her Denali and drives off down the long and winding California road that could easily parallel her life.

Imani Powell is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

Photo Credit: Kwaku Alston