Zayn Claims ‘Nobody Is Listening,’ Has a Lot To Say About Love, Sex and Himself

Media-cultivated solo career narratives become less meaningful when you’ve never heard (or heard of) the pop group or boy band these artists came from. But there’s a reason why these individuals were chosen to perform in the first place, and by 2021 those Svengali-like producers and managers have nailed down that curatorial process to an absolute science. Consequently, the spinoff stardom of someone like Beyoncé or Justin Timberlake becomes increasingly less of an outlier and more of an inevitability. 

One Direction already felt a bit like the boy band international adapter that led to groups like Korean pop group BTS becoming a worldwide phenomenon, further refining the formulas that showcased individual personalities while sharpening their collective appeal. So when Rolling Stone ranked Harry Styles’ 2019 sophomore album “Fine Line” among the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, the superlative felt slightly presumptuous less than a year after its release, but nevertheless well earned. Zayn Malik’s third solo record, “Nobody Is Listening,” may not rise to the level of transgressive joy — or decisive career-defining creativity — that “Fine Line” delivered, but it’s a solid achievement for the quarantine era and polished collection of bedroom R&B songs guaranteed to keep Zayn fans occupied until there’s an opportunity to get back to the breezy outdoor vibes of Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar.”

Malik was the first to leave One Direction in 2015, and the scale of this record seems to reflect his ambitions for post-1D stardom, eschewing stadium-sized anthems for the quiet intimacy of his voice and a handful of instruments. He opens the record with “Calamity,” where he raps instead of sings. The verse sets off the album and explores a number of cryptic but seemingly pointed topics. Lyrics like, “There are rumors we have to face / I prefer sooner than after late / I seen actors after BAFTA’s be more straight” suggests he wants to send somebody a message. But few outside of his most vigilant fans will likely decipher the code, leaving everyone else to soak in his unhurried delivery and the clarity of a Bradford accent that quite frankly doesn’t get spotlighted enough. Whether intentional or not, he sets an ironic tone with the chorus, singing “Nobody, nobody is listenin’ to me” exactly at the moment we’re leaning in to figure out what he’s talking about, and suggesting that the record will promise a lot of honesty and closeness, but only at arm’s length.

What emerges in ways both good and bad is a songwriting approach that evokes the heyday of an artist like Beck where the lyrics he writes sound like they mean something, but don’t add up to much more than sense memory of an idea that’s been locked away in the artist’s head. On “Better,” the album’s first single, Malik sings, “Can we save tears in your eyes? / I’m making you cry / Why wait to hate? Can we save love?” Certainly there have been enough songs about romantic struggle that he’s got no obligation to be transparent about whatever he or his protagonist is going through, but if the acoustic guitar and his earnest declaration, “I fell in, I’m falling, I’m for you” suggests reconciliation, it’s hard to know what the recipient of this confession is supposed to take away from it. And yet, his multi-octave voice is so clear and stunning that it almost doesn’t matter.

“Outside” feels a bit clearer than its predecessor as Malik acknowledges the problems in his relationship while insisting he still wants to be in it, but the song similarly expresses only a point of view from inside his head; like, maybe you’d have fewer problems with your supermodel lover, mister international pop star, if you thought from (or just explored) her perspective and acted accordingly? Of course, the story of a song is not a real relationship and the person expressing these thoughts is not always the songwriter. But on this record that he claims to have had “full creative reign,” Malik exposes a deep well of feeling that occasionally lacks focus, an unfiltered, itinerant creativity that is fun to hear him work out as a listener even when you can’t fully understand what he’s getting at. 

Malik has created a record that’s perfect for those nights when you need a solid, catchy soundtrack but aren’t ready to turn up. Track four, “Vibez,” finally gets into a more explicit groove, musically and lyrically, as a heavier R&B beat kicks in underneath his slow-walk seduction, “Baby, I’ma get you right, I will / When I touch you, tell me how it feel / Trust me, I’ma make it feel surreal.” His team up with Syd on “When Love’s Around” evokes the Avengers-style all-star tropical soul of Calvin Harris’ 2017 collection “Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1,” but even if it’s a few years late in capitalizing on the superproducer’s vibes, the song feels equally fun and timeless. 

On “Connexion,” Malik puts on his best John Legend, as he continues to cycle through different vocal styles (including a couple of fuzzbox filters) over an acoustic guitar, Malik really settles into his wheelhouse, and delivers some of the album’s best material over the next few songs. “Sweat” uses an electric drum kit and rubberband bass for a sex-drenched update of an ‘80s power ballad; listening to it, it’s easy to imagine Richard Gere zipping along the California coast in a top-down convertible, contemplating his most recent romantic failure. The song sequence builds to the liberation anthem “Unfuckwitable,” where finger snaps keep time over a downtempo R&B beat as he proclaims, “Can’t nobody take me home / Yeah, I’m worth my weight in gold.”

The Post Malone-style sex anthem “Windowsill” gives up the pretense of innuendo for more explicit — if less compelling — sexual come-ons, an understandable if slightly clichéd choice for a pop artist asserting their adulthood that ultimately comes off more as silly instead of sexy, especially paired with a feature from British rapper Devlin that sounds like a desperate add-on to “toughen up” one of his songs. But it also serves as a steam valve for the album’s building intensity as he closes strong with “Tightrope,” a country-tinged track that samples Bollywood singer Mohammed Rafi’s “Chaudhvin Ka Chand,” and “River Road,” a retro-soul style confessional. The final two songs find Malik easing back into candid, sometimes confounding introspection as he again wrestles with relationships that in real life probably demand more honesty, or less, since on record his confessions generate more questions than answers. 

Ultimately, that’s an interesting and unique place to land as an artist who’s still settling into his voice, because even if it indicates he hasn’t quite figured himself out yet, his artistic output is expanding as he’s exploring what feels true and authentic to him instead of acquiescing to a lower-resistance, more commercial path. Still, the ambiguities of “Nobody Is Listening” suggest that Zayn is trying to decide exactly who he is as a solo act, but even without absolute certainty he has more than enough talent and ambition to make the process of discovery a lot of fun to witness. 

Nobody Is Listening” releases Jan. 15 on Apple Music.