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Inside Beat

Zayn Malik explores romantic side in 'Nobody Is Listening'

From designing the album's artwork to delving into themes of love and romance, "Nobody Is Listening" is singer Zayn Malik's most intimate project to date. – Photo by Zayn / Twitter

After a two-year-long hiatus, pop singer Zayn Malik finally released his third studio album, “Nobody Is Listening,” on Jan. 15. Drawing from the rich rhythm and blues (R&B) influences of his previous project, “Mind of Mine” (2016), and the diverse sounds of “Icarus Falls” (2018), this latest musical exploration is a concise, 35-minute summary of Malik's artistic consciousness.

The introverted artist’s hiatus was largely prompted by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, along with his newfound family life with longtime partner and supermodel, Gigi Hadid, and their welcoming of their baby daughter, who was lovingly named Khai, in September 2020.

But despite these changes in Malik's life, “Nobody Is Listening” covers subject matter more rooted in romance rather than fatherhood.

The album begins with “Calamity,” a spoken-word song reminiscent of British alternative-pop artist Rex Orange County’s music. While the song deviates from Malik's strong vocals and tendency to croon, it reflects the artist’s state of mind. The track concludes with the titular sentiment "nobody is listening," an interesting preamble to the next 10 tracks.

The major singles of the album, “Better” and “Vibez,” fit the mold of contemporary pop music without sounding like overplayed, TikTok earworms, while the music videos establish an apt aesthetic narrative for this era in Malik's work. Interestingly, for this incredibly personal and vulnerable album, Malik used his passion for the visual arts and designed the expressive, multicolored sea of anonymous faces staring out at us on the album cover.

The 28-year-old singer’s commanding voice and eclectic style — ranging from pop and R&B to hip-hop and electronic dance music — have allowed him to collaborate with a diverse set of notable artists. In the past, he’s worked with the likes of Sia, Taylor Swift, Nicki Minaj and Zhavia Ward.

But on this album, Malik includes two collaborations with very talented but less mainstream artists.

The mellow “When Love’s Around” features American hip-hop, soul artist Syd, and it sparked speculation online of Malik and Hadid’s engagement with the lyric: “You could be my wife for real.” The catchy “Windowsill” features English rapper Devlin, and the track's explicit lyrics leave nothing to the imagination. And while “Sweat” similarly touches on sexual themes as well, it doesn’t raise eyebrows the same way “Windowsill” does.

To me, the best song on the album is “Tightrope,” a beautiful love song that exhibits Malik's ability to successfully experiment with and master a broad spectrum of musical powers. In the track, Malik sings parts of Bollywood singer Mohammed Rafi’s 1960 hit “Chaudhvin Ka Chand,” which perfects the track's creative evocation of deep and devoted love. The lyrics to Rafi’s melodious classic analogizes a girl to the full moon and the sun.

Growing up in a British-Pakistani household in Bradford, England, a city with a prominent South Asian population, Malik has musically engaged with his cultural roots on several of his previous works.

"Mind of Mine" featured “INTERMISSION: fLoWer,” a track that showcased the magic of his voice in Urdu, and in 2018, Malik released a cover of a popular Bollywood song, “Allah Duhai Hai,” that excited Desi members of Malik’s larger fanbase, the "zquad."

River Road’ and “Outside” are also standouts as euphonious tracks arising from the all-important theme of love, more specifically, Malik’s undying love for his girlfriend and muse, Hadid. I think Rolling Stone’s final assessment of the “bedroom R&B” album captures this idea best: “If he really thinks nobody is listening, that’s fine by him. There’s only one person he has in mind anyway, and there’s nothing more honest in pop music than that.”

Personally, I've been listening to Malik grow as an artist since my days of being a dedicated One Directioner in the 2010s and, throughout the years, have seen a lot of continuity in his solo discography. Nonetheless, "Mind of Mine” remains my favorite body of work.

Between ballads like “fOoL fOr YoU,” laidback tracks like “rEaR vIeW” and “BoRdErSz” and the hit pop single “PILLOWTALK,” "Mind of Mine" made a strong debut for Malik as a solo artist. Emerging from the confines of a strictly pop career with One Direction, Malik had a clear and unique vision for this first album.

Two years later, “Icarus Falls,” with an overwhelming 29 songs, left me slightly confused and often felt repetitive in its sound. Despite my mixed feelings about the album, singles like “Let Me” and “Entertainer” and songs like “Natural” and “You Wish You Knew” were still enjoyable.

I feel similarly ambivalent about “Nobody Is Listening” and was a little underwhelmed by the overall brevity of the album. But, tracks like “Tightrope,” “Better” and “River Road” are indicative of Malik’s real potential to organically mature as an artist and deliver inventive music.

Unlike many celebrities in the mainstream, Malik is a private and enigmatic figure in the world of pop music and social media, so his albums are where he best expresses himself. Overall, this latest album is an evolved, intimate and chilled-out iteration of Malik's rhythmic romanticism.


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