‘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.


Chloe x Halle level up on ‘Ungodly Hour’

Chloe x Halle, Ungodly Hour
Ungodly Hour, Parkwood Entertainment

There’s a moment in the middle of Chloe x Halle’s stunning sophomore effort, Ungodly Hour, when their evolved personas really take shape. “When you don’t have to think about it, love me at the ungodly hour,” the duo coos on the title track.

Its this newfound confidence, self-assuredness and effortless cool that echoes throughout the immaculate 13-track collection. The duo has evolved as artists, women and performers – and this development shines as brightly as the chrome angel wings on the album’s artwork.

Drawing inspiration from modern and 80s Pop, throwback R&B, Hip Hop and elements of Blues, Chloe x Halle are able to refine the strongest sounds of their debut The Kids Are Alright and double down on what sets them apart from peers in their genre.

The album is instantly gripping with “Intro” and “Forgive Me,” establishing the two as strong, unapologetic, and independent. The openers immediately set the tone for a complete evolution.

The self-actualization continues on “Baby Girl,”  a tropically influenced mid tempo bop. More, the track is an internal pep talk to keep pushing and turning dreams into realities.

This narrative bleeds into the album’s second single, their most accessible track to date in “Do It.” Light, groovy, and lots of fun, “Do It” could be the breakout that shoots the duo to superstardom.

One of the strongest elements to the record is its cheeky attitude. It’s abundantly clear Chloe x Halle are having fun on several of these tracks. On “Tipsy,” the sisters playfully threaten their lovers with a fatal ultimatum. “If you love your little life, don’t fuck up,” they command.

On “Busy Boy,” the singers kiss off immature boys and their wandering, noncommittal attitudes. Both tracks lean heavily in the pop space, a perfect reflection of the lyrical tone of the songs.

“Ungodly Hour” is a well kept secret and pleasant surprise. Chloe x Halle enlist the help of Disclosure for production on the track, a well placed declaration of their worth.

Ironically, one of the weaker moments on Ungodly Hour comes in the some of the biggest collaborations. Mike WILL Made-It and Swae Lee visit to deliver “Catch Up,” the album’s decent but forgettable lead single. Its the rare moment on the record that feels overly pandering to an audience more than happy to sit back and hear the exclusive talents of the songstresses.

Arriving at “Overwhelmed,” one of the many stripped down vocal gymnastic interludes the women have made their signature, Chloe x Halle take the opportunity to be vulnerable. Maintaining the bounce of rest of the tracks, “Lonely” dives deeper with lyrics that are so intimate it feels as if Chloe x Halle are in the room with the listeners, comforting them with words of affirmation.

They turn the attention inward on the final moments of the album. “Don’t Make It Harder On Me” relates the complexity of being in a relationship when someone else grabs one’s attention. The song may have benefitted from a quieter production with the vocals taking up more of the spotlight, but it remains a gripping and vocally impressive inclusion to the track list.

“Wonder What She Thinks of Me” succeeds where “Harder on Me” falters. Halle’s vocals are astonishing, only further supplemented by the emotion delivered by Chloe. Their complementary sounds have never blended better than on this track.

What’s most brilliant about the record and the multi-talented Chloe x Halle is just that – their talent. Bringing together innovative production (“Tipsy”), unparalleled vocals (“Don’t Make it Harder On Me”) and nuanced songwriting (“Lonely”), the duo are unmatched in focus and consistency.

Ending with “ROYL,” Chloe x Halle remind the listener they are still the playful girls of The Kids Are Alright. Only now, they have scars and mistakes, and they are better for them.

“Watch out world, I’m grown now,” Chloe x Halle asserted on their debut. With Ungodly Hour, they prove it.