Boy bands have been around forever. From the turn of the millennium, pop fans were given groups like New Kids on the Block, The Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and most recently One Direction. Almost always, one individual is given a greater media push to standout in hopes of a solo career.
Most prominent was that of *NYSNC’s Justin Timberlake. With his debut solo record Justified, the Timbaland collaborator established a sound that was unmissable in the 2000s and again in the 2010s with his return after a hiatus.
Different from groups up to that point, One Direction’s global success allowed not one, but arguably three incredible solo endeavors to come from the band’s decision to end their impressive and historic run. ZAYN, Harry Styles, and Niall Horan each found chart topping success in the years following their run with the band. Fans and music lovers mostly believed it would be Harry Styles to first find success. While the star has undeniably achieved more mainstream longevity, it was ZAYN who first broke from the band to release culturally significant solo music.
Unlike Styles, though, ZAYN was at a point where he had lost himself. In an attempt to create self-proclaimed “real music,” he released an, albeit very strong, pop album akin to the work from One Direction. It leaned more heavily into explicit lyricism and R&B inspirations, but remained true to the pop genre.
With the highly dismissed follow-up Icarus Falls, ZAYN favored excess as subverting mainstream expectation. The collection had some strong tunes, namely “Let Me,” but it was an overall flat and bloated project. Now, in 2021, ZAYN tiptoes back onto the scene with his third studio LP Nobody is Listening.
Perhaps a response to the lack of success Icarus Falls saw, the title is also representative of the themes throughout the album. Clearly more personal than his previous projects, Nobody is Listening is a decidedly concise, raw, and experimental record. Often too raw to be deemed compelling, it doesn’t make too much of an impact. Instead, it feels much like a course corrector and a personal artistic evolution for an artist looking for the light at the end of the suffocating tunnel of fame he has lived in up to this point. In other words, ZAYN seeks something real and authentic through this music.
Does it shine through in the lyricism and vocal performance? Often, yes. He pleads for second chances and the refusal to give up love on lead single “Better,” returns to the sultry world of Mind of Mine‘s “PILLOWTALK” on “Vibez” and standout “Sweat,” and contextualizes the album’s inspirations by bringing in The Internet’s Syd on “When Love’s Around.” On “Tightrope,” he recommits himself to partner Gigi Hadid in beautiful ode to true love.
Each of these songs possesses an earnesty that finds the boy band alum with increased clarity in his personal life. He appears more open to turn his vulnerability outward to the listeners that have stayed with him to this point in his career.
The pitfalls of the album come mainly from its stripped down, often dull production. Excluding the aforementioned tracks and perhaps the jarringly rapped opener “Calamity,” the remainder of the album is underwhelming at best. Tracks like “Connexion” and the hilariously titled “Unfuckwitable” go in one ear and out the other. The few tracks that bog down an otherwise solid project point to ZAYN’s current position of growth. He’s getting there, but his potential has yet to become fully realized.
The themes seen on ZAYN’s first two LPs–those of love, sex, and introspection remain at the forefront of Nobody is Listening. What makes the project different though, is ZAYN’s insistence in popping the bubblegum pop excess to cut open the makeup of who he truly is as an artist and what music he intends to make.
While imperfect, Nobody is Listening is a step toward a more assured, singular performer.