The debut album by New York City’s neo-neo-soul duo Lion Babe has been gestating for more than three years. The buzz around producer Lucas Goodman and singer Jillian Hervey began in late 2012 when they released “Treat Me Like Fire,” a dazed, smoky call-and-response between Hervey’s purring come-ons and Goodman’s snap-and-clap beats and slivered-up samples of a crackly old soul 45. That was, apparently, the first song the two of them had worked up together; since then, more striking tracks and videos have slowly trickled out, including collaborations with Childish Gambino (the delicious “Jump Hi,” in which Hervey’s voice bounds around a snippet of Nina Simone‘s “Mr. Bojangles”) and Pharrell Williams (“Wonder Woman”), as well as an appearance on Disclosure‘s “Hourglass.”
Hervey and Goodman know a lot about projecting charisma: she’s the daughter of Vanessa Williams, he’s the son of rock fashionista Ray Goodman. Still, they’re a young enough act that their artistic inspirations are very clear on Begin. Goodman, who also records under the name Astro Raw, is a crate-digging beats-and-pieces producer who takes a lot of his cues from the likes of J Dilla and Flying Lotus, and Hervey’s understated, simmering timbre and phrasing — and her willingness to cast the spotlight on her voice’s crinkles and gnarls — owe more than a little to Erykah Badu.
Lion Babe have a playful, experimental streak, and they stretch themselves stylistically at every turn. “On the Rocks” nods to the style of late-’80s R&B (it even cribs its breakdown from Janet Jackson‘s “Nasty”), but perpetually mutates its groove with freaky dub effects; the new single “Where Do We Go” is laser-beams-and-mirrorballs Eurodisco, with elaborate horn fanfares swirling out of pointillistic drum programming; “Whole” alternately stacks up layer upon layer of Hervey’s voice, strips it bare in the mix and slices it down to an unnerving ululation. At times, their subgenre-flipping can be ungainly — the cheerleading chant “Impossible” is awkwardly glued together, and Hervey’s dissonant harmonies sometimes obscure her hooks. More often, though, the cracks in their songwriting and sonics come off as welcome decoration, and their why-the-hell-not bravado is hugely refreshing.