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Courtesy of Warner Records

November 3, 2019

TEST SPIN | Gallant — ‘Sweet Insomnia’

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At a moment in which it can be easy to see the bread and butter of the R&B genre as a casualty of today’s genre-less blur of streaming-driven pop music, Gallant feels like a traditionalist up to the task of maintaining that center. As its most distinct edges continue to be swallowed, the most obvious angles to approach R&B now come in the form of co-opting hip hop or leaning into the branding of bedroom pop. Gallant makes no such concessions.

Sweet Insomnia is the 27 year old Maryland native’s second major push toward the center of the R&B world, and represents his strongest success in that realm thus far. While the crooner’s 2016 debut, Ology, felt like a formidable starting point driven by a handful of impeccably crafted singles, Sweet Insomnia is a more tightly and singularly constructed statement.

On his sophomore effort, Gallant serves as our own personal curator, displaying snapshots of his favorite moments of R&B over the last number of decades. Somehow, throughout this effort, he manages to skip from place to place with enough grace to pay homage all over the map, but never sound derivative, nor fickle. Instead, by painting us a broad picture, Gallant finds himself squarely in that R&B realm. On “Sharpest Edges,” an early highlight, Gallant floats through vocal acrobatics over a syrupy but dynamic R&B bounce. On “Sleep On It,” he channels his best 2000s Usher impression. Elsewhere, on “Paper Tulips,” he conjures a sultrier after-hours vibe. In each instance, his sound never feels overly derivative, and always leaves room to inject his own angle.

For all of its musical strengths, Sweet Insomnia’s most glaring weakness is, at times, its songwriting. Even over the course of a succinct 35 minutes, Gallant’s lack of creativity with the pen can make his effusion of R&B tropes like love and nostalgia blend together. Gallant provides nothing new on “Hips,” as evident in his distinctly pedestrian lyrics of “your hips on mine.” On “Hurt,” he attempts to invigorate a gratingly repetitive chorus (“Hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt hurt”) with a misfire of an EDM-inspired instrumental breakdown. It is in these moments where Gallant’s sound can feel either pandering or indistinct.

But over the course of a mostly tight 13 tracks, Gallant’s astounding vocal range and musical dexterity make for a largely lively affair. This is especially true of the two songs which feature guest vocalists, “Sweet Insomnia” with 6lack and “Compromise” with Sabrina Claudio. On the former, Gallant finds a worthy hip hop-indebted foil to his traditionalist view. On the latter, meanwhile, Afrobeat stylings add an important late-album dynamism. In both cases, these carefully curated guests inject an expertly calibrated change of pace. 

Two albums in, Gallant emerges as an impressive artist with the pedigree to maintain a promising career in the center of today’s R&B scene. Undoubtedly, though, there remains room or growth atop this formidable foundation. For Gallant to truly take the next leap, he must be willing to graduate from putting his own touch on a smorgasbord of nostalgic subgenres, and begin to carve out his own.

Griffin Bader is a senior in the College of  Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at gcb66@cornell.edu