Zayn Malik, the 25-year-old former One Direction member, is still far from the type of world-beating success that some of his former colleagues are currently enjoying. His sophomore effort, Icarus Falls, could’ve represented a second chance to establish himself as one of pop’s leading lights. Instead, it is a monolithic slab of moody, swirling R&B that’s as dull as it is totally indigestible. The 27-track record — originally set for release in the fall of 2017 and dumped onto streaming services last week with close to zero promotion — clocks in at an interminable 90 minutes, almost explicitly designed for á la carte–streaming consumption.
The simmering blandness of Icarus Falls is all the more surprising, given the level of anticipation surrounding Zayn’s solo career just two years ago. After he departed from One Direction in 2015 — a full year before the band went on indefinite hiatus in 2016 — there was a level of hype surrounding his as-yet-realized solo career that seemed both indicative of our 24-hour-music-news-cycle times and strangely preemptive. Before he’d released a lick of music, Zayn had already snagged the cover of taste-making music mag The Fader by the end of the year, a co-sign that seemed to indicate he was destined for hipper things than One Direction’s admirably square boy-band pop.
His 2016 debut Mind of Mine hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200 on the week of release; a record consumed with alt-R&B’s stylistic tics — from Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia, Ultra–era waviness to the dirty, stoned guitars of Miguel’s 2015 album Wildheart — Mind of Mine was less a fully formed debut than a competent introduction to Zayn as a solo artist. There were details that signaled a personality, beyond the adorable school-photo cover art: The impressionistic “Intermission: Flower” represented Zayn reaching into his cultural heritage by offering his own interpretation of Qawwali, a form of Sufi devotional music, with the vocals sung in his father’s native Urdu language.
The flashes of promise on Mind of Mine are totally absent on Icarus Falls, a record that sounds as if it were made for and by algorithms. The au courant R&B-pop sounds that clog Icarus Falls — mid-tempo, vibey music with gently cresting choruses cloaked in faux-erotic mystery — are simply too on-trend to represent anything other than an attempt to game the musical marketplace into hearing this stuff.
With an array of producers ranging from sometime Frank Ocean collaborator Malay and Timbaland to pop steamroller Greg Kurstin and hip-hop auteur Frank Dukes, Zayn continues to pull from the sonic well of Mind of Mine while applying more plain and streamlined melodies to his fashionable framework. He also shows a slight predilection for the choppy guitars and stuttered rhythms of missing-in-action indie-pop fabulist Jai Paul — an artist whose approach felt fresh and exciting when his music began making the rounds in the mid-2010s. Still not quite yet ubiquitous in today’s pop landscape, Paul’s sound still possesses a creative fertility that, if applied right, could make for intriguing-sounding music; instead, Zayn offers mere facsimiles of his approach, practically ripping off the 2012 single “Jasmine” for his “Back to Life” and adding some warbling tones to “Insomnia,” unimaginatively rendering Paul’s unique approach into lite-pop pablum.
“I’d rather be anywhere / Anywhere but here,” Zayn moans in the opening seconds of “Good Times”; news outlets have glommed on to the couplet as referencing his time spent in One Direction, but the line also forces the question that hovers over every pop star’s career: Were does he go next? It’s clear that literally doubling down on Mind of Mine’s slick derivations has led to something of a dead end for Zayn’s career; the early reports on Icarus Falls’ first-week sales performance signal the record pushing around a mere 10 percent of total sales that its predecessor debuted with.
There exists the nagging feeling that it didn’t have to be this way. Last year, Zayn dropped two collab-focused singles — the skippy PartyNextDoor-featuring “Still Got Time” and the blaring Sia team-up “Dusk Till Dawn” — that, while not particularly memorable in the long run, cast Zayn’s voice in different sonic lights and felt novel by design. And they were more successful, too: Both songs outperformed Icarus Falls’ whopping six whiffs, only the album’s sparkling opener “Let Me” cracking the nether regions of the Billboard Hot 100. “Every day I find another song that I’m swapping out with another one,” Zayn told The Fader last September, a way of explaining the well-documented blown deadlines that also suggests an artistic indecisiveness contributed to Icarus Falls’ wasted largesse.
The fact that Zayn’s solo career is practically stuck in neutral feels all the more unfortunate when put in comparison to former bandmate Harry Styles. The latter has achieved great success by pumping out soaring, Queen-esque solo singles and hamming it up on Saturday Night Live with bad Mick Jagger impressions — a willingness to please that served as an extension of his One Direction days. “I don’t buy into that side of things,” Zayn told The Fader about his approach to self-promotion. “I just want to do my music. If people hear about me from their friend, it’s cooler than me being in their face all the time.” The sentiment is admirable, but after Icarus Falls it also seems totally possible that, barring a change in approach, the opportunity for word of mouth might not exist in the future.