What do R&B fans love almost as much as a sultry groove? Drama, of course. Whether it's Mary J. Blige famously swearing off that game, or Usher coyly implying (then denying) real-life baby mama scenarios, the backstory becomes the all-important lens through which their songs are filtered. And few R&B singers have a more sympathetic history than Faith Evans, the talented widow of the Notorious B.I.G. The hip-hop generation has a soft spot for her, and not purely for sentimental reasons: She's recorded three consistently good, sometimes great discs (all overseen by former mentor P. Diddy for his Bad Boy label) by nakedly sanging her joy and pain. The First Lady continues that candid legacy, with Evans addressing a 2004 drug possession arrest (she spent 13 weeks in a rehab program) straightaway on the buoyant, no-regrets first single, ''Again'': ''In ATL I caught a case, and the media tried to say/I had a habit, I couldn't manage and I'm throwing my life away/But everything ain't what it seems, just because it's on TV/Cause they speculate and ex-aggerate for a better story.''
But public struggles mean little without strong material to give them voice, and she's got that too here, though not to the stellar degree of 2001's Faithfully. While that set focused on grittier hip-hop samples, First Lady's finest moments find Evans frolicking in sunnier '70s soul soundscapes. She's a restrained disco diva on ''I Don't Need It'' and the requisite DJ-play-my-song ditty ''Lucky Day,'' while on the flirty track ''Jealous''and the Lyn Collins-worthy ''Mesmerized,'' Evans flaunts the assured power of her sexy instrument. Though blemished by a few toothless slow jams like ''Ever Wonder'' featuring Mario Winans (Faith, you deserve better than him!) and ''Tru Love,'' the album's mature whimsy reflects a healthier, happier Faith Evans. Which leaves her, for better or worse, one step closer to passing (and extinguishing) her dramatic torch.