By Jeremy Helligar
Updated November 16, 1998 12:00 PM

Soon after R&B singer Faith Evans married gangsta rapper Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace in August 1995, their match made in hip-hop heaven began to look like a Jerry Springer sweeps-week special. Wallace promptly went about indulging his cheating heart, while his longtime rapping rival Tupac Shakur boasted on an album of trysting with Evans. There were suspicions, after Shakur was gunned down in Las Vegas in September 1996, that his murder was an act of revenge. Then, the following March, Wallace himself was shot to death at 24 in L.A. in a drive-by murder still thought by some to be payback. “People said that I’m the reason they’re dead,” says Evans, who denies that she was involved with Shakur. “If I wasn’t as strong-minded as I am, I would probably have been somewhere trying to kill myself.”

Instead, the widow turned her troubles into triumph with last year’s multimillion-selling No. 1 single “I’ll Be Missing You,” a tribute to Wallace on which she collaborated with his best friend, rapper-producer Sean “Puffy” Combs. Evans, 25, revisits some of that unhappiness with her second album, Keep the Faith, a collection of semiautobiographical songs released Oct. 27. “Faith’s a different person in a positive way,” says Combs. “That’s what tragedy and pain will do to you. It matures you beyond your age.”

Her wild ride began in 1995, when she met Wallace, a rap superstar also known as the Notorious B.I.G., at a photo shoot. Two weeks later they married in Rockland County, N.Y. “He was charming and funny,” she says. “We both said, ‘I want to marry you,’ and did it.” Her reaction to his prolific infidelity? “He was a good person but definitely not ready for marriage,” says Evans. “I tried my best to be a good wife for as long as I could take the disrespect.”

It didn’t help that one of Biggie’s affairs was carried on more or less publicly with rapper Lil’ Kim, but Evans claims she’s not holding a grudge. “I’m not on a campaign to be [Kim’s] friend,” she says. “But if that happens, then, hey.” Still, the damage was done and compounded by unfounded speculation within the industry that Shakur might be the father of Evans and Wallace’s then-unborn child Christopher Jr., or C.J., now 2. The couple separated in 1996 but remained friends until his still-unsolved murder. “I don’t even remember my reaction,” says Evans of the killing. “It was just blank. But I pulled it together and dealt with it with dignity.”

Her faith in God helped. The only child of Helene Evans, a singer, and Richard Swain, a musician, Faith moved with her mom from her birthplace of Lakeville, Fla., to Newark, N.J., at six months. (She has no contact with Swain, who left before she was born.) “School and church kept me out of trouble,” says Faith, who at 3 made her singing debut, doing “Let the Sunshine In” in church. “I remember being so little and frightened,” she says. “I cried afterward, but I got a standing ovation.”

After graduating from Newark’s University High School in 1991, Evans attended Fordham University to study marketing but dropped out a year later to have daughter Chyna, now 5 (whose father she declines to name for personal reasons). A couple of months later she moved to L.A., where, with Mom’s blessing, she pursued a singing career. “I felt she could always go back to school,” says Helene. “Because her mind wasn’t going to be there. It was going to be on her music.” In L.A. her work as a backup vocalist for R&B singer Al B. Sure! caught the ear of Combs, who in 1994 signed her to his Bad Boy Entertainment label, which released her platinum debut, Faith, in 1995. “She was shy,” says Combs. “But her voice was so confident.”

And these days she’s singing motherhood’s praises. Since giving birth last June to a son, Joshua, with her fiancé, a music manager she met two years ago and refuses to identify, Evans spends much of her time playing suburban mom in the five-bedroom house in Matawan, N.J., that she shares with her three children and husband-to-be. But, inevitably, Wallace is still much on her mind. C.J. knows that his father has died but little more. “Whenever he sees his father’s videos,” says Evans, “he shouts ‘Daddy! Look at Daddy!’ He’s already familiar that his father has passed away. But he’s also going to know one day that he was a rapper and a very prominent one. He’ll know a lot of things.”

Jeremy Helligar

Mary Green in Matawan