Pop music is not an easy place to be a reluctant, brooding antihero. In a world where everyone is doing jazz hands, strutting their stuff and projecting to the back of the hall, Zayn Malik has long been more wallflower material – less eager to please, more introverted and more sceptical than the job description called for.
Nearly six years since he bowed out from One Direction, precipitating their indefinite hiatus, the mononymous Zayn remains something of a cipher. Despite being three albums and umpteen paparazzi shots into a solo career, he’s a vanishing act. Nobody Is Listening doesn’t change that. As Zayn himself would have it, he’s perennially “in a world of [his] own”.
Running counter to the prevailing heart-throb R&B of his solo works, the melody on Unfuckwitable, an autobiographical cride coeur, is old-timey. Zayn’s voice is assuredly elastic, switching between vaporous falsetto and yearning soul, relieved at having found his niche. The song’s title feels forced at first, as does the over-serious rap track, Calamity, that opens the album. But then you get it: Zayn is serene in his citadel. He’s “unfuckwithable … that’s why my shoulder so cold”. He bids farewell, not for the first time, to groupthink: “I found a way higher – me is all I need to be inspired.”
All this is not mere aloofness on Zayn’s part. He was once bitten, now he’s twice shy. Social media abuse, often racist, was some of what Zayn found so difficult about One Direction. Lockdown probably suited him just fine. He hated touring in 1D; he has yet to tour solo. Instagram is, perhaps, the perfect theatre for Zayn: maintaining a just-so visual presence as part of a power couple with the model Gigi Hadid, but engaging relatively little in the social media tumult.
Nobody Is Listening doubles down on this expertly cultivated, look-but-don’t-touch, this-far-and-no-further brand. The good news is that, as an artist, Zayn keeps refining. The songwriters may be many here, but the songs suit him more and more. Unlike its predecessor, the over-long marathon that was 2018’s Icarus Falls, Nobody… clocks in at a pithy 11 tracks. The mood is heavy-lidded – low-key, low-lit, divided between doe-eyed entreaties and booty calls. The BPMs never get above a slouch; the positions it takes are mostly horizontal.
Zayn’s citadel probably has a very big bed in it – one that the heart-throb would stay in 24/7 if he could. Having cannily pegged the release of the album’s first single – a love song, Better – to the birth of his first child last September, it’s probably little accident that Nobody Is Listening is, in great part, an album to make babies to. Social distancing is not in its DNA. The album’s second single – actually called Vibez – was deemed not suitable for work by a hyperventilating internet, despite the fact that the song is all soft-focus anticipation, rather than actual having-at-it.
That comes later; fans should invest in fans. On the steamy Sweat, Zayn’s keen to “touch you where you like it”. Boxy production and gated drums suggest the track’s producers borrowed from Phil Collins’s In the Air Tonight, and not in a bad way. More pertinently, there are moments here where Zayn actively recalls the Weeknd – another unsmiling owner-operator of a powerful falsetto. A long and lucrative road potentially beckons in this direction.
More graphic still is Windowsill, where the action shifts to ledges and countertops. It’s quite an achievement that Zayn manages to make a song about playing hide-the-sausage sound both wistful and bittersweet. East London rapper Devlin, one of two guests on the album, is an unwelcome distraction here. By contrast, Syd – of the Internet, Odd Future and solo fame – proves an unexpectedly apposite foil on When Love’s Around.
Happily, Zayn’s libido is not the toxic kind that has you rolling your eyes at its selfish puerility. Repeatedly, you get the feeling this is a guy who just wants to float around in a post-coital fugue state for ever, taking a few tokes and going at it again (“My brain lives in the canna-abyss”, he raps on Calamity). For all that the two lovers seem to be giving the neighbours plenty to talk about (cf Windowsill), the beast with two backs is not the whole story here.
Zayn’s so in love, you see. But there is little triumphalism. The remainder of Nobody Is Listening seems to soundtrack an era when Malik and Hadid were on-again and off-again. There is pining. There are tortured, oohed-and-aaahed declarations of love. On Connexion, a guitar’n’fingersnaps track littered with vocal effects (Zayn seems to be endorsing “phyzzikl plezhurrr”), our man is taking the plunge into commitment. “Can we stay in the bedroom?” he pleads. The album’s closing track, River Road, is surprisingly classy: a beatless reverie, it throws back to crooner torch songs and vintage soul. Zayn slurs, chews and sighs his syllables. “Let me float in ecstasy,” he sighs beatifically, sounding freer than ever before.