The boy band graduate remains desperate to remind you that he has sex, eager to insist that he smokes. His falsetto is beautiful, but he’s never sounded like this much of an amateur.
Five days after a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, as Congress lurched towards a second impeachment, Zayn tweeted his phone number in an attempt to break the internet. Callers could listen to snippets of each track from the former One Direction star’s latest solo album, just long enough to hear him breathe the words “fucking on the windowsill” and launch into his falsetto. Moments after hanging up, a text would appear—“yoo, Zayn here!”—offering the singer’s alleged contact number and a promise to “stay in touch 🙂 x.” The gimmick revealed a larger gambit: that in the middle of… all this, fans will still leap at the illusion of proximity to a pop star.
This next iteration of Zayn’s music has no hour-and-a-half-long concept albums tenuously based in Greek mythology, no sweeping intermissions or inane opening statements. Nobody Is Listening begins with a wincing mumble of spoken word: “My brain lives with the cannabis/Can I resist the dark abyss/Leave a mark on this with no start, just exist,” he intones, punctuating the words with dramatic piano chords. He oscillates between brooding and breezy, different shades of the sound he’s strived for since he started recording on his own. He remains desperate to remind you that he has sex, eager to insist that he smokes—well-trodden themes in Zayn’s solo music. But he’s never sounded like this much of an amateur, the shimmer and sheen of his earlier music reduced to the rumpled nonchalance of another stoned guy who thinks he can rap.
Nobody Is Listening is a record born of the Justin Bieber school of R&B: blathering and diluted, a derivation of a derivation. “Hope I only leave good vibes on your living room floor,” Zayn croons over Starbucks-core guitar chords on “Better,” before floundering into a mangled O.J. Simpson metaphor: “Like it’s a crime on trial, I got acquitted/Me and you wasn’t meant, we wasn’t fitted,” he cries. “Like it’s a glove, I hated to admit it.” These are billed as confessional songs, supposed windows into his breakup and reunion with Gigi Hadid, but Zayn’s plodding self-seriousness contaminates any sense of closeness. He agonizes over whether to keep his dog after a split, wailing that “when I look at him, I think of you”; he marvels that his “connexion” with a lover can be “digital, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, but physical, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh.”
The album’s most tolerable songs fixate on the physical, a pulsating goo of slow drums and reverbed descriptions of skin mashed against skin. “When Love’s Around” builds on a Views-era Drake beat that’s catchy enough to distract from the sound of Zayn moaning about his aura. “We are who we are when we’re alone,” he hums on “Tightrope,” between trickles of guitar and accounts of wrapping his legs around someone’s torso. His words slosh together on “Windowsill,” an indistinct slush of vowels over hazy synths and bass. Then the British rapper Devlin barrels in and punctures the song’s trance, sputtering about Satan and mimicking Zayn’s ridiculous phrases.
In 2015, months after Zayn became the first to leave One Direction, he told The Fader that he disdained the boy band’s music, that he would never listen to it at a party. “If I was sat at a dinner date with a girl, I would play some cool shit, you know what I mean?” he said. “I want to make music that I think is cool shit. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for.” Nobody Is Listening makes a painstaking attempt to disguise an endless supply of sweat and sex and cigarettes as a love story. “Baby, this far from mediocre,” Zayn brags about his relationship on a song called “Vibez.” It’s yet another low bar he congratulates himself for clearing—knowing that no matter what he sings, legions of fans will listen.