Faith Evans’s latest single “I Deserve It,” featuring Missy Elliott and Sharaya J., highlights her unmarried woman status as she and her friends listen to a litany of come-ons from dudes in the club. “Even before I finished writing the song, I knew I wanted to get Missy on there,” she recalls from a New York City hotel room. Her upcoming disc Incomparable (slated for release November 24) is her first solo project in four years. “I wasn’t sure what Missy was working on or if she would have time, but we got it done.”

Back in her Emmanuel Baptist Church days in Newark, New Jersey—where she joined the choir at 5 years old and sang in the choir with a future MC named Reggie (Redman) Nobles—Faith was inspired by the voices of the Clark Sisters, especially sister Karen. Meeting years later, she and Karen Clark collaborate often. “We did an inspirational song for my album called ‘Paradise,’ ” Faith says. In the past, the two powerhouse singers worked together on “Nothing Without You,” from Clark’s 1997 solo debut. “We also recorded another song for Karen’s new album.”

It was in the jiggy era of 1994 when writer/vocalist Faith Evans first arrived on the scene, a shy girl with a daughter and a hoopty that was constantly breaking down. After a chance meeting with Sean “Diddy” Combs, the emerging king of hip-hop cool invited Faith to the studio to become part of his fledging Bad Boy Entertainment team. Working behind the scenes in various capacities before getting signed as an official artist, one day Faith would be picking up Usher from school (yes, bananas); on another, she’d be writing lyrics for yet another Puff project.

“Every day was something different,” the former “First Lady of Bad Boy” says. The label celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. “This was before he built Daddy’s House [recording studio] and we were working out of the Hit Factory. Puff would book all the rooms and have an assembly line of writers and producers making tracks.

“Puff trusted my opinion. I remember him taking me and [producer] Chucky Thompson to Atlanta with him to hear 112, because he wanted to know what we thought. Puff is a creative visionary, but at that time, we were all figuring it out.”

It was at the Hit Factory where Faith recorded her early classics “You Used to Love Me” and “Soon As I Get Home.” It was also where she met her first husband, legendary MC Chris “the Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace. “Big tried to act quiet when I first met him, but that was all a front,” Faith says. “Big was a jokester; both of us are Gemini, so we had a lot of fun together. When he asked me to marry him, I was ready. The only problem was, Biggie wasn’t.”

As documented in the 2009 film Notorious (based on co-screenwriter Cheo Hodari Coker’s brilliant biography, Unbelievable: The Life, Death, and Afterlife of the Notorious B.I.G.), the glam couple’s doomed relationship was turbulent from the beginning. With Big’s constant cheating with protégés Lil’ Kim, Charli Baltimore and countless groupies, Faith was always more than ready to rough up her rivals. Indeed, if fans learned anything new from Notorious, it was that Faith knows how to throw a punch.

“I hated to fight when I was younger, but growing up in Newark, I saw my share of them,” she confesses. “I don’t consider myself a prizefighter, but I have guts and a fearless attitude. Looking back at those days, I’m like, ‘What was I thinking?’ ”

For many fans of ’90s soul music, one of the standouts of Faith’s early career was her duet with label mate Carl Thomas on the wonderfully beautiful break-up song “Can’t Believe,” which appeared on her third album Faithfully in 2001. “Originally that was done as a remix for Carl’s song ‘Emotional,’ but I’m not sure what happened. I thought my vocals could have been better, but Puff kept telling me I was killing it.”

The last time I interviewed Faith in 2010, she was working on a reality show about her family. Of course, that show hasn’t materialized as of yet. Instead, the world was blessed R&B Divas: Atlanta in 2012. Featuring Monifah Carter, Angie Stone, Keke Wyatt and other divas, Faith was also the executive producer. But with the current season, she wasn’t invited back to the show. “It wasn’t my decision not to come back, but at the same time, my input into the show was no longer respected. Right now I’m working on other stuff. I want to have a new show hopefully next year.” For the moment, Faith’s reality is her new music on Incomparable, and trust, it gets no realer than this.

Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.