2020 has been a big year for the One Direction alumni. Harry scored his two most successful singles to date with “Adore You” and “Watermelon Sugar,” Liam got engaged, Niall snagged his second consecutive Top 5 album with Heartbreak Weather, and Louis released his debut album, Walls. Characteristically quiet, Zayn has kept his fans waiting for his solo return to music. Since 2018’s Icarus Falls, he guested on R3hab & Jungleboi’s “Flames” and a remix of SHAED’s “Trampoline.” For his first solo single in two years, Zayn teamed up with Lucky Daye to create “Better,” a tender ode to the power of second chances.
Lucky Daye, who scored four Grammy nominations for his Painted album last year, has guested on albums from Kehlani and Kiana Ledé this year. On those tracks, he adapted to the sounds of the respective lead artists, but on “Better,” he exerts his influence through the vocal melodies in the first and second verse. “Better” is built on bouncy drums and funky guitar, a combination that simultaneously builds on and moves away from the electro-R&B/pop sound of a lot of Zayn’s earlier work. On the first verse, Zayn opts for a more stream-of-consciousness vocal style which evolves into an almost rap-sung cadence in the standout second verse. It’s all tied together by the funky guitar loop — another hallmark of the 70s funk influence on Painted. The guitar’s relationship with the drums is, by far, the most interesting part of “Better.” When the two instruments work together, the song is poignantly hopeful; when the guitar stands alone, as it does on the outro, the mood shifts into something that is more somber and melancholy.
Zayn smartly flips an interpolation of Kasey Cisyk’s iconic “You Light Up My Life” to paint a lyrical picture of the fight for a lover that, presumably, lights up his life. “Better” is a welcome return from Zayn. At times, the lyrics are hard to make out because of his muffled enunciation, but when he starts riffing and belting, you can’t help but melt. This is Zayn’s first song as a new father, and he’s singing with conviction and depth that he hadn’t yet developed on Mind of Mine and Icarus Falls. His voice has also grown a slight rasp which adds more character to his vocal performances. He truly has grown a lot since Icarus Falls. Now, the countdown starts for his third album.