So this is what Adele has been up to…

30, Adele

There are a growing number of avenues for success in pop music. Artists like Ariana Grande have capitalized on the urgency and quick attention spans of audiences by releasing concise, polished projects within a few months of each other.

Others take a more relaxed approach. Frank Ocean, Lorde, and many other mainstream artists sit with their albums long after they’ve been released, allowing breathing room to experience what life throws at them in between projects. Neither tactic is necessarily better than the other, but its global superstar Adele who has mastered it more than any of her contemporaries.

In deftly marketing her albums as encapsulations of chapters of life through age, Adele is able to seamlessly paint portraits of where we was during these times. She locks the memories, attitudes and feelings that come with being 19, 21, or 25.

But, as with any pop star, every new project brings with it the increased pressures to succeed and build upon the foundations of its predecessors.

With 21, the singer-songwriter encapsulated heartbreak flawlessly from a youthful perspective. The one of a kind album went on to become the most successful domestic and global album of the century.

On 25, Adele was burdened by the pressures that come from a diamond selling 21st century record in 21, resulting in some attempts to cater to a variety of audiences throughout the same record. The record is brilliant, but its main pitfall is that needed to please everyone. Perhaps poetically, it maintains success in that it accurately portrays Adkins’ headspace during that period of her life.

In finding even more record-breaking glamour with 25, Adele realized she no longer has anything to prove. The new chapter, 30, is a collection that feels totally hers, from the sonics and styles to the raw lyricism and the spoken introspections.

In ways, 30 is at once the star’s most accessible and niche album. It incorporates more popular contemporary elements than perhaps all of its predecessors, but yet the glue is a nostalgic soulfulness that has only come with the experiences on which Adele is recapping her seemingly endless audience.

On “My Little Love,” Adkins coos over a 70s groove. It’s a haunting, pensive exploration of what it means to be a mother and express one’s independent challenges to a young child. Her honesty is profound, sprinkling in raw voice notes of conversations with her son and a voicemail to a trusted friend.

On 30, Adele lets listeners in to become that friend. After a chilling intro with “Strangers By Nature” and the lead single that set the tone for the themes of the record (“Easy On Me”), “My Little Love” begins the story of the album.

Many have deemed that story to be one of divorce.

On the surface, sure, it is. But in taking a deeper look, 30 is an album of self discovery. It’s a manifesto of building the courage, the self awareness and grit to choose oneself wholeheartedly above all else. Knowing the many risks that lay ahead for Adele on her road of being alone, she strides anyway. 

The album presents a matured Adele with a profound confidence. Through this journey, even in its darkest moments, Adele finds ways to step forward and explore herself more freely. The midsection of the album largely consists of glossy pop tracks that use Adele’s proven sounds as a foundation for experimentation. Tracks like “Oh My God” and “Can I Get It,” the latter a tried and true Martin/Shellback ear worm, are the biggest proof of this.

On “Woman Like Me,” Adele stands up for herself in setting boundaries and knowing her worth. Flipping the beat of 21’s “Lovesong,” the sultry slow burner is a memorable deep cut.

Through the peaks and valleys of Adele’s process post-divorce, she remains firm in her decisions. The climax of this mentality, and of the album, comes with perhaps Adele’s greatest song yet, “To Be Loved.”

The track is a retelling of Adele’s decision to leave her relationship. In doing so, it quickly becomes one of the singer’s most powerful and haunting songs she has recorded. Within the ticking of the piano chords, she bares her soul.

Above all, 30 is a very brave artistic statement. It doesn’t have any of the immediate hits of 21 or 25 on initial listen, but what it does possess is a narrative a rich soundscape that’s more cohesive than any past project.

Adele reveals sides of herself she has yet to in her career, exploring the depths of herself and with that pursuit laying bare her strife to the globe. In the shedding of those layers, the ignoring of fan service, and the committing to herself, Adele presents her most fully realized body of work.


‘Nobody is Listening’ reintroduces ZAYN

Nobody is Listening, RCA

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.