Zayn Malik was the first of the One Direction pack to leave, not, as boy-band lore often dictates, because he had designs on tracing the Bobby Brown/Beyoncé/Justin Timberlake path from success in a singing group to megastardom as a solo artist but, to hear him tell it in the 2015 Facebook post announcing his departure, to “relax and have some private time out of the spotlight.” His moves in the intervening years have suggested that he meant it; he’s only as present on social media as he needs to be and seemingly disinterested in the promotional theatrics that come with the job of being a pop star. Leaving 1D was, in part, necessitated by a struggle with anxiety, one that Malik needed a break from the spotlight to shake. Zayn’s new and third solo album, Nobody Is Listening, out today, arrived with just a week’s notice, absent the usual trail of photo shoots, interviews, and cross-branding exercises one endeavors when galvanizing a base to buy something. The videos for “Better” and “Vibez” depict the singer lounging in secluded places of comfort; the lyrics read like private talks between lovers. It seems the 28-year-old singer-songwriter is keeping as low of a profile as can be managed, a peculiar choice after 2018’s double album, Icarus Falls — a concept album likening a disintegrating relationship to the plight of the figure in Greek mythology who famously died flying too close to the sun — failed to expand on the international success of his 2016 debut, Mind of Mine.
Zayn’s first two albums were both disappearing acts of a sort: Where his fellow former Directioners have positioned themselves as savvy hybridizers —Harry Styles balancing pop and rock values on 2019’s Fine Line, and Niall Horan managing the same with folk-pop across 2017’s Flicker and 2020’s Heartbreak Weather — on Mind of Mine, Malik caught the “alternative R&B” slipstream behind Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. He tapped Ocean’s co-producer Malay to devise a sound just as sultry and pliable, if less impactfully unique, one that would fuse with ’80s-style adult contemporary by the time Icarus landed two years later, a shift the second album handled quite capably. If delaying the release for the better part of a year, going easy on public promotion, neglecting to service obvious highlights like “Tonight” and “Common” as singles (opting unwisely to affix the plight of Icarus to unremarkable tracks like “Too Much” and “Entertainer”), and then burying most of those singles deep in the back half of a 27-song opus housing leftovers from the last album didn’t suggest at least a casual disdain for the fame machine, naming the next release Nobody Is Listening does. Instead of distancing himself dramatically from the commercial failure of Icarus Falls and offering something radically different, as many artists are wont to react, with Nobody Is Listening, Zayn offers a subtle refinement of the sounds and ideas he has pursued through his solo career thus far.
If Icarus Falls traced a man’s descent into darkness, cataloguing the fallout from a breakup in songs like “Insomnia” and “Entertainer,” the new music details what it took to put him back together again. Opening with the stormy “Calamity,” a kind of comic-book recap of how our hero came to be in a bind, Nobody Is Listening mirrors Zayn’s journey from parting ways with longtime girlfriend Gigi Hadid to the reunion that has produced the couple’s first child, a baby girl born in September (and whose name has yet to be revealed, in keeping with the singer’s flair for secrecy). The story is told in short, sweet, catchy tunes that mix quiet guitar and piano productions with the flavors of contemporary R&B, in the process achieving the same feeling of intimacy and honesty that made gems like “Pillowtalk” soar. The greatest of these approaches an effortlessness past Zayn albums have struggled to manage. “Outside” sells reconciliation by mixing R&B cadences and guitar riffs that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Modest Mouse song as Zayn floats from breathy low notes to a smooth falsetto, inching higher with each line before crashing at the end of the chorus and starting over again in the next verse with effective perseverance. Zayn comes out of Nobody Is Listening a stronger man for his efforts, however seemingly minimal.
As yearning and pleading moments like “Better,” “Vibez,” and “Outside” give way to songs of reconciliation and appreciation, Nobody Is Listening loosens up. “When Love’s Around,” in collaboration with Syd of the Internet, borrows from dancehall music in a manner less jarring than Icarus’s Partynextdoor duet, “Still Got Time”; its nod to the 1997 Notorious B.I.G. anthem “Fuck You Tonight” also mirrors modern mainstream R&B’s nostalgic stripe, as the two singers commiserate about the patience that love requires. “Sweat” is the best ’80s revivalist track on a pop album since Dua Lipa’s “Cool” or the Weeknd’s “Save Your Tears.” The slow, plodding synth-pop beat suggests sex as much as the lyrics do; the drum break just before the chorus suggests great respect for Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight.” “Unfuckwitable” is a soulful falsetto workout cut from the same cloth as Beyoncé’s “Rocket,” but instead of cooing about the rush of making love, the source of Zayn’s joy is the ability to be happy keeping to himself. If Malik never overtly explains where his head was while making this music and releasing it to even less fanfare than the last album, the sense that he has found a way to live that comforts him — and a way to write songs that leans into the strength of his voice and speaks coolly and quietly to the ups and downs of a high-profile romance — will suffice.