Damn. Eve is drop-dead gorgeous. Standing in the lights in front of photographer Marc Baptiste’s camera, wearing a deep-cut gold lamé top (effectively more like a fancy pair of suspenders than a blouse), the former first lady of the Ruff Ryders rap dynasty looks more like a supermodel than a supa MC. Glistening with a sheen of olive oil sprayed on by J.J., her trusty makeup artist of seven years, the woman who used to be known as a “pit bull in a skirt” stares straight into the camera’s lens and gives it a million dollar snarl.

“Set it off, girl!” Baptiste shouts, trying to loosen her up. Eve twists her body this way and that as the camera’s shutter clicks. The images pop up instantly on a high-powered digital monitor mounted high enough for the roomful of hired staff to assess each passing shot. A stylist is summoned to make some adjustments. When he steps away, the plunging garment is in an even more revealing position.

“Come on, girl!” Baptiste urges her on. Glancing at the screen, though, Eve isn’t happy with what she sees. She kindly asks him to erase the last five shots—the ones that captured not only her stunning profile but a healthy portion of bare breast as well—and readjusts herself.

“I don’t mind being sexy,” says Eve the following day, sitting at the bar at NYC’s posh Ritz-Carlton Hotel. (The famous paw-print tattoos, peeking just above the scoop neck of her black sweater, attest.) “There is a fine line between ‘hot’ and ‘hooch,’ and I’m not gonna do it… I never wanted to be the girls I saw when I was coming up. I never felt like I should do what other people already know. What’s the point of paying attention to me if I’m doing exactly what you see every day?”

You can’t fault her. But while she has always set herself apart from her female MC peers, the tough-spitting West Philadelphia chick has gotten herself so far away from her roots these past couple years she seems in danger of falling out of touch completely. After her last album, 2002’s Eve-olution, Eve decided to leave the East Coast for the sunny skies of L.A. Already a multiplatinum-selling rap star and a fashion icon, she parlayed her fame into an acting career. She landed her own UPN sitcom, Eve, and roles in a half-dozen films, including two installments of Ice Cube’s hugely successful Barbershop franchise, XXX with Vin Diesel and the critically acclaimed The Woodsman, in which she played a nosey co-worker of a child molester (Kevin Bacon) struggling to re-enter society after getting out of prison. While she concentrated the majority of her energy on screen time, Eve managed to pop up here and there on the radio, guest appearing on songs with Gwen Stefani, Mary J. Blige and Amerie.

“I chose another life for a second,” she says. “But I was never like, ‘I’m stopping music forever.’ Thank God for those features, ’cause it kept my face out there.”

Even so, her time away from hip-hop’s main stage could prove detrimental. This August, Eve is finally set to release Here I Am, her long-awaited collaboration with Dr. Dre. (Eve appeared on XXL’s cover in May 2004 to mark her return to Dre’s camp as a part of his new Aftermath Records roster.) But with record sales plummeting across the industry and hip-hop sounding like one big posthumous catalogue, it’s a dangerous time for anyone to be dropping any kind of project, no matter who’s behind it.

“I’m definitely rolling the dice with this album, because it’s different,” Eve says. “Dre hated it. He was like, ‘We need to throw some mud on it.’ He played me distinctive Dre joints, and I turned them down, because I was like, ‘I’m not 50. I’m not Game.’ That’s his shit, and I love it, but it’s not something that I wanted to do.”

Dre is credited as a co–executive producer on the album, but it will feature only one of his tracks. In the end, Eve went with beats from Swizz Beatz, Timbaland and Pharrell and a sound more closely identified with Top 40 radio than rap. Encompassing key elements of rap and pop music, along with a hearty infusion of reggae, to give it a summery, dancehall vibe, Here I Am belongs to the 21st century subgenre that might as well be called “urban crossover.”

eve-2.jpg“I feel like it’s not such a shock that this album is going that way,” says Eve. “Because the last time people saw me was with Gwen… People have seen me on TV now. I’m not gonna be like, ‘I’m in the street!’ ’Cause that’s not real… I still want my audience that loved me and supported me from the hood to come with me. And I think that they can. With Justin Timberlake playing on urban radio right now with T.I., five years ago, that was not happening. It took two White boys to bring R&B back: Justin and Robin Thicke. That’s crazy!”

Growing up in the same apartment with her mother, uncles, grandma and grandpa, Eve Jihan Jeffers had an independent streak from a young age. “Since I was little,” she says, “I never wanted to ask my mother for money.” She started rapping as a young teen, and, by the time she graduated high school in 1996, she knew she wanted to make a career of it. Figuring it would be the quickest way to get out of her mother’s house and into her own apartment, she took a job at a New York strip club.

Her heart wasn’t in it, though. And she wasn’t very good. “I was the lazy dancer,” she says. “I wasn’t like the other girls that danced. I was really like the girl that sat down. I used to tell dudes, ‘Yo, you know I rhyme.’ That was my whole shit. I really don’t know how I survived it. I used to watch those girls and be like, ‘This ain’t for me.’”

In 1996, Eve auditioned for a member of Dr. Dre’s camp, who was so impressed that, two days later, she was out in L.A. signing with Aftermath. “At 18, I was Eve of Destruction,” she says, noting her first rap moniker and an attitude that matched. “I was a young girl from Philly who was like, ‘Whatever, let’s make it happen. I need an album out! Come on, Dre!’” She rolls her eyes. “I was so rowdy.”

------- Read the rest of our Eve feature in XXL’s June 2007 issue (#92)