For the Record: Zayn’s ‘Nobody is Listening’

Audrey Morrison, Features Editor

record player
In For The Record, Audrey Morrison talks new albums, concerts, and more. (Graphic by Ellen Chadwick)

Most of us know that Zayn’s 3rd album: Nobody is Listening, was recently released on January 15, 2021. But that’s the extent of the conversation circling it has been about. Even my most die-hard, 1-D and Zayn fans have been surprisingly quiet about this seemingly monumental moment. Ever since Icarus Falls in 2018, fans have been begging Zayn to release new music. Now he has, and it seems as if Zayn has predicted the future: nobody is listening. 

Following Icarus Falls, Zayn’s long and winding road through fame, insecurity, and opulence, there was an expectation of greatness for its descendant. Fans were willing, I think, to ignore its mediocrity just to hear his sweet, sweet voice after years of abandonment. What Icarus Falls lacked in musical prowess, it made up for in poetic accomplishment and down-to-earth (excuse the pun) grit. 

And before that there was one: Mind of Mine, Zayn’s first solo album released in 2016. A masterpiece by all accounts. Equal parts tenacious and fleetingly open. Mind of Mine was the perfect representation of Zayn after he left 1 Direction – aggressively pursuing a unique sound that would separate his boyband phase from himself as an artist. There’s really nothing bad I can say about this album. To this day, “INTERMISSION: fLoWer” by Zayn is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. And this is coming from a reformed, apologetic, 1-D cynic. I only wish I felt the same about Nobody is Listening.

nobody is listening album cover
Zayn’s ‘Nobody is Listening.’ (Photo via RCA Records)

The opening track, “Calamity,” starts with a synth reminiscent of Rex Orange County’s “Stressed Out.” That is to say: it was a bit clichéd and outdated. His spoken word was akin to slam poetry without the slam and grime without the beat. And honest to god I hoped I would love it (I mean, how could you not love the voice of a man who looks like Zayn does). -But without the personality, without his far-reaching strides for perspective: it simply fell flat. Zayn’s individuality – his individual sound is what makes him so entirely special and praise-worthy. That’s why it’s not really worth talking about most of the songs on the album.

To be fair, the album itself is easy to listen to, it has some good beats, it shows off some of his vocal skill. But it has absolutely no personality. You could tell me this album is by Charlie Puth, Nick Jonas, Justin Bieber (as Pitchfork likened to his sound), or any singer of the like and I wouldn’t bat an eye. 

Zayn’s debut album paid homage to his Pakistani roots, featured a song in Urdu, brought light to the many facets of his connection with Britain, his family, the people he loved, and the people he desired. While Nobody is Listening also included some Urdu lyricism, it seems it was haplessly thrown in with a hackneyed drum machine and a few acoustic guitar chords.

All of his poeticism, although straightforward and a bit obvious, was lost on this album. To make an R&B album (that’s the best I can classify Nobody is Listening as) you don’t need to sacrifice artistry for rhythm. Often, they go hand-in-hand. One of the best R&B songs, “Lovers Rock” by Sade, is love and verse at its finest. 

“I am in the wilderness

You are in the music

In the man’s car next to me

Somewhere in my sadness

I know I won’t fall apart completely”

If Zayn had kept the same themes within the album: the appreciation he feels for the woman he loves, the sadness and emptiness nostalgia imparts upon him, his paranoia and dissolution from fame, while changing the tone: sincere, ruminating, anything other than his dissonant cockiness which goes against every affirmation of love he’s trying to express. Without complete sincerity, R&B is reduced to a good beat and vapidity. I just think that Zayn has to fine-tune some of the ingredients: the lyricism, cadence, context, and his recipe will be perfect.