If you think about it, Zayn is in one of the most interesting positions ever for an artist of his stature. He was one-fifth of one of the biggest musical acts of the past decade (One Direction) and his history-making debut album scored him chart-toppers in both the U.S. and U.K. “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” his duet with Taylor Swift for the second Fifty Shades of Grey film, was also a smashing success while his second album, Icarus Falls, peaked outside of the Top 50 in both the U.S. and U.K. In addition, Zayn doesn’t really speak or show his face outside of the random Instagram Live or music video. His last television performance for his own music was during the promotional run for his debut solo album in 2016. Of course, his issues with anxiety play a large part in his reclusiveness, but Zayn is one artist that we truly only hear from through the music. In a way, he has an advantage over a lot of his peers. Where their lives are splattered across social media and tabloids, Zayn has almost complete control over his narrative. On his third studio album, Nobody Is Listening, Zayn largely fumbles that advantage and delivers an album that, quite frankly, is dull.
When music is quite literally the only avenue Zayn gives us to peer into his life, an album that largely relies on the same themes as his debut single, “PILLOWTALK,” feels redundant, if not, regressive. The album’s title simultaneously feels accusatory and sorrowful. It’s as if he’s accusing those around him, and us, in general, of not really listening to him while also expressing the pain and hurt that that accusation comes with. It’s a title that feels heavy. If Zayn felt the need to title his album Nobody Is Listening, clearly, he had something to say. Unfortunately, the album feels a bit empty. There are songs about love, songs about sex, songs about true love, and songs about fighting for love, but Nobody Is Listening delivers nothing that we haven’t heard from Zayn before. His voice is particularly strong on these records and there are some more layers to his emotion, but even the album’s strongest moments don’t compare to some of the tracks on Mind of Mine or Icarus Falls. Zayn ventures outside of his comfort zone at various points on Nobody Is Listening to varying degrees of success. On “Calamity,” the album’s puzzling opener, Zayn doesn’t sing until the final four lines of the song. Instead, he raps over the self-produced (along with Unicorn Waves) beat about, well, a lot of things. He adopts a stream-of-consciousness flow to touch on different existential crises and calamities in his life. There are your standard references to weed, feelings, and the sincerity of other people, but Zayn doesn’t seem to understand the importance of intonation in rap. To put it plainly, his rapping is awful. If “Calamity” is taken as a spur-of-the-moment spoken word ramble, it would make more sense than if it were viewed as a rap song. At best, the song sees Zayn starting off the album with something that is fiercely new and different. At worst, it’s one of the weakest songs of his career. Nevertheless, Nobody Is Listening refuses to be defined by that early misstep.
Zayn is at his best when he focuses on his R&B lane and adds some elements that are new. On “Sweat,” the best song on the album, Zayn blends pounding drums and synths into a primal song that rages with passion and carnality at every turn. There are notes of funk from the bass guitar in the chorus, and the contrast of mellow verses and anthemic hooks makes this one of the most sonically interesting songs on the album. Similarly, on “When Love’s Around,” the better of the album’s two collaborations, Zayn combines slight echoes of dancehall with a sample of Biggie’s “!*@ You Tonight” for another standout. Syd’s bright voice is juxtaposed nicely against Zayn’s earnest tone. Lyrically, “When Love’s Around” flips the crudeness of the Biggie track into something that’s more tender and sincere. The track could have ended up being a bit melodramatic, but Nicky Davey & Jay Kurzweil’s bouncy production adds some levity to the whole affair. For every sex song on Nobody Is Listening, there is another song dedicated to telling us how in love Zayn is with his wife, Gigi Hadid. The album’s lead single, “Better,” which interpolated the immortal “You Light Up My Life,” is still as heartwarming as ever as the album’s first entirely-sung song. “Tightrope,” which interpolates Mohammed Rafi’s “Chaudhvin Ka Chand Ho,” sees Zayn singing in both English and Urdu about the power of their love. He croons “Lately, I feel like my grip is gone/But you got my arm” before launching into a hook that intentionally uses repetition to emphasize how important this love is to him. Melodically, Nobody Is Listening is strong, but Zayn’s vocal performances are what truly elevate these songs. Overdone metaphor and imagery threaten to sink some of these tracks, but Zayn is now singing as a long-term partner and a father, and those life experiences add more color and weight to his malleable voice. From his piercing falsetto on “Connexion” to his riffs on “River Road,” Zayn is singing with a conviction that he hadn’t yet developed on his first two albums. It would help, however, if he were to add some more intricate harmonies to beef up the background of these tracks.
Zayn tapped a plethora of different producers for the tracks on Nobody Is Listening and while the album still ends up being a cohesive unit, the soundscape is a lot safer than it needed to be. Zayn stays in this vibe&B lane with elements of rock, funk, and jazz sewn in, but, overall, the production fails to capture any interest. With boring production and middling lyricism, delivering strong vocal performances and solid melodies was the least Zayn could do. At 36 minutes, it’s not like Nobody Is Listening allows itself much time to cover different themes and concepts, but after listening to the full record, it doesn’t feel like Zayn really attempted to do so anyway. With the exception of “Calamity,” none of these songs are bad; Zayn has just covered similar themes with stronger songs on his previous albums. We’re listening, but he’s not really saying anything new.
Key Tracks: “Sweat” | “Better” | “Unfuckwitable” | “Tightrope”