“I don’t want to be a star,” Zayn Malik said in a rare magazine interview in 2018. As one-fifth of what was the biggest pop group on the planet, One Direction, he seemed to have had more than his fill of screaming hordes and constant camera flashes. When he became the first to abandon the band in 2015, it didn’t look as if he was scrabbling for the best chance of Robbie Williams-style solo dominance. “I want to be a normal 22-year-old,” said his apologetic leaving statement.
In which case, simply pointing the Bradford lad towards the nearest pipefitting apprenticeship should have been the last we heard of him. Instead, there was a debut solo album that went to number one on both sides of the Atlantic, duets with Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj, and a daughter born to the supermodel Gigi Hadid last September. How many twentysomethings would fancy a life as normal as that?
Yet he does appear to be getting his wish within certain parameters. Five years since his first single, he still hasn’t performed a full solo gig. A second album, Icarus Falls, spent one week at number 77 in the UK. Perhaps fans couldn’t face its indulgence: 29 songs in a leisurely 95 minutes. Meanwhile all eyes and ears are on his former bandmate Harry Styles, whose second album has barely left the top 10 in a year.
So Zayn calling his third one Nobody is Listening could be a statement of fact or desire. He’s “making the music he has always wanted to,” says the blurb, which means no blatant attempts to return to the pop charts. These 11 songs are largely hazy, stoned R&B, offering blurred textures and smoky atmospheres but few standout moments. Sweat has the most drama, with crashing Eighties drums and a chorus that finds him pushing his exceptional voice. On Unfuckwitable and River Road, he’s content to emote over meandering guitar strums.
At his best, as on the smooth Syd duet When Love’s Around, he can sit comfortably beside Frank Ocean and Syd’s band The Internet as a maker of high quality, impeccably modern soul music. It’s obvious that’s the kind of company he wants to keep, and undoubtable that his vocal ability was wasted on One Direction’s primary-coloured pop. However, in the oversharing age, this way of working – dispensing songs at arm’s length and letting the music do the talking – may not be sustainable unless the music speaks a little louder.