Long before he left One Direction, just days after the launch of its final tour, Zayn Malik was obviously the member who was least jazzed about being in a boy band, and fame in general. He was the first to leave and the first to release a solo album, so it’s not surprising that after the blockbuster success of 2016’s Mind of Mine” and the over-reach of the sprawling follow-up (titled, with unfortunate foresight, “Icarus Falls”), he’s embraced a more stripped-down, intimate approach, one that’s much less deliberately pop.
He’s on safer ground with the title, too: Positioned as “the album he’s always wanted to make,” “Nobody Is Listening” opens with the moody, semi-rapped “Calamity,” a dark musing about mistrust and anxiety (“My brain lives with the cannabis/ Can I resist the dark abyss?/ Leave a mark on this with no start, just exist”), but then moves into a mix of lighter, low-key R&B and ballads, with lyrics almost entirely about love and sex; the one with most pop-friendly melody has a chorus about fucking on a windowsill. And while the warm vibe of the album is consistent with a major change in his life (he and longtime partner Gigi Hadid had a daughter in September), it avoids the wide-eyed, circle-of-life lyrics that so many new-parent artists indulge.
While “Nobody Is Listening” isn’t big on bangers (musical bangers, anyway), it shares a sensibility with songs by H.E.R., Pink Sweats, Daniel Caesar and other guitar-centric R&B even as the music keeps to a Timberlake-ian framework; it’s easy to imagine Malik strumming many of these songs at home on the couch. He played a much bigger role in the recording process here than before, executive-producing the entire album; with the exception of two songs with returning collaborator Saltwives, he works with a different producer on each track, few of whom are well-known. The only features are R&B singer Syd on “When Love’s Around” and British rapper Devlin on “Windowsill.”
And in a refreshing reversal from its 29-song predecessor, “Nobody Is Listening” is concise and to the point, breezing through 11 songs in 35 minutes. While each of his albums has been a reboot, this one is the most dramatic of all — and clears the table for whatever might be coming next.