Lion Babe’s debut album, “Begin,” wows with a neo-soul sound that toys with the line between retro and modernism. The voice, Jillian Hervey, and producer Lucas Goodman comprise this New York City-based duo. The name suits their image and energy well: bold, confident and a little sexy. Hervey’s voice lovingly imitates that of famous singer-songwriter Erykah Badu. Meanwhile, the R&B-meets-electronica sound is palatable and intriguing–it gets you hooked.
“Begin” was released on Feb. 5 and features high profile collaborations with Pharrell and Childish Gambino. Both members of Lion Babe hail from famous parents—Hervey’s mother is “Ugly Betty’s” Vanessa Williams—though the pair’s career started with one song uploaded to Soundcloud. This beginning encapsulates the origins of musical careers in the digital age. Like other young, up-and-coming musicians, Lion Babe has many well-studied musical influences that reveal themselves in their work.
Admiration of Lauryn Hill, Chaka Khan and Tina Turner manifest at different points on “Begin.” Meanwhile, Lion Babe also has the necessary savvy to craft singles with the potential to top charts. The time spent experimenting and gaining self-assurance paid off on their 2014 EP, “Lion Babe.” All of the songs from the EP appear on the album and they are among the best. Songs like “Jump Hi” and “Treat Me Like Fire” are catchy and relatively safe compared to “Begin”’s new material.
In addition to their musical growth, Lion Babe has been playing around and gathering buzz for a few years now. As one would expect from the child of celebrities, the duo has hit the red carpet for Fendi, Rayban and Art Basel. They’ve snagged some high-profile interviews too–no doubt a result of these appearances.
Still, the group has talent. “Begin” somehow splits the difference between safe, radio readiness and daring, genre reclamation. Representative of the album overall, “Stressed OUT!” blends the R&B, pop and electronic genres in an infectious way. Occasionally, the song feels experimental in the way that it introduces some new beats in the middle of the song. This unexpectedly and enjoyably modernizes the song’s feel.
Throughout “Begin,” Lion Babe isn’t afraid to experiment with genres. The duo plays with funk, disco and dubstep in different songs. Sometimes the start of a new song sounds shockingly different, particularly “Got Body.” Each song could be the example of a unique album. Though the genres of the songs are vastly inconsistent, Hervey’s voice has a memorable consistency that pulls that album together. Largely due to her voice, all of the songs transition well into each other. Experimentation–usually anchored in late-‘80s nostalgia–and Hervey’s voice define Lion Babe.
Lyrics are Lion Babe’s weakness. They are fitting, predictable and adequate. If you make the mistake of focusing on the lyrics instead of allowing the auditory stimulation to sweep you away, “Begin” grows tiresome. But not all good songs, albums or musicians are about the words. Melody has as much potential to share an energy, emotion and/or story.
In this case, emotional depth and personal narrative are absent. But the melodies are so interesting and experimental; it’s actually difficult to direct one’s focus to the lyrics for too long. Plus, the quality of the lyrics is a step above that of a typical DJ’s radio single. Generally, the words on “Begin” are coolly poised, effortlessly feminist and sultry. They match Lion Babe’s image, so they’re fine.
“Where Do We Go” is a standout number that worms its way into your brain and refuses to let go. The disco elements are fun and bouncy. The hook draws you into a happy space. “Jump Hi” has a similar effect with its catchy, pop-inspired beat.
“Impossible” also has addictive qualities. The fast pace creates a high energy and Hervey’s vocals appropriately effuse a joyous sass. Were this song in the hands of Beyoncé, the power behind this anthem for female empowerment would easily lift it to number one on the charts. A few times Hervey sounds like Beyoncé with a little more soul, but a little less punch. It’s hard to choose favorites off the album. All of the songs are worth a listen and deserve a spot on this debut.
What makes Lion Babe unique is hard to pin down. Are the songs individually unique or does the power come from the way they work together in an album? Are we at least slightly drawn in by their seemingly larger-than-life personas and jet-setting ways? Additionally, the range on the album means that there isn’t one cohesive effect. Sometimes it’s a chill album; at other times, it’s exciting and danceable. The album becomes increasingly experimental as it goes on. Just when one begins to form an opinion, there’s a new genre fusion to consider.
“Begin” opens with “Whole” and lands in a very different place with “Little Dreamer.” It will be fascinating to see where Lion Babe takes their music and the neo-soul genre next. “Begin” sounds like Lion Babe finding its sound. The album neither cloys for mainstream success nor solidifies a pedestal in the underground scene. Given Hervey’s public image, inspirations and pedigree, I’d assume Lion Babe is angling for a major breakthrough. Only time will tell if “Begin” has enough appeal with its erratic sense of self to ensure big success. In the meantime, enjoy “Begin” as a series of excursions from the usual radio offerings.