Zayn Malik taught me about the ecstasy of growing up

A reflection on the ex-One Directioner's new album, Icarus Falls, which reminds me of a life I once dreamt of.

January 3, 2019

Everyone has albums that make them feel extremely delicate and abstract feelings, albums that seem to coincide with strange, or transformational periods in their lives. Often, these feelings are atmospheric and difficult to articulate. You can show your friends the same songs, but there’s no guarantee that they will be blessed with the same feelings. Symptomatically, you wonder if you are the only person on Earth experiencing these liminal feelings that crush you with longing but feel divine nonetheless. Despite Zayn’s debut album, Mind of Mine, debuting at #1 on the Billboard 200 and becoming the first UK male solo act to do so, Zayn’s first—critically underwhelming pop meets R&B—album struck a nerve with me, that launched me as a pioneer in the discipline of Zayn Malik studies. Like a cheap, sweet wine, how did a seemingly mediocre album put me under this spell, and add vibrancy to my unassuming, 21st-century life?

It’s impossible to consider Zayn’s music without the narrative that clouds him: the reluctant, “mysterious” pop prince, coming off the media high of leaving potentially the world’s greatest boy band for the chance at artistic honesty, and entering a new phase of his young, but still wildly popular career. This eagerness to finally gain creative license over his career—or more clearly, establish his status in the canon of sexy, smoky R&B bad boys—may have suffocated the opportunity for authenticity in the first album. However, a love for slow, gritty jams stripped of theatrics was essential, perhaps primal to his career as a vocalist. During Zayn’s not-so-distant time on The X Factor, he auditioned with “Let Me Love You” by Mario, and later refused to participate in the choreography, but still became the dynamic coloratura tenor of Simon Cowell’s One Direction.

From one intense branding, to a new rebranding closer to what we may consider as the “real” Zayn, there is the undeniable truth of his sheer talent; this dynamic, sultry voice that once flourished One Direction songs, now has the opportunity to control its own form. His ability to almost effortlessly incite visceral, blissful reactions with his voice solidifies his status as a powerful presence in pop and R&B. However, the tattooed, jarringly handsome young talent seemed too eager for validation and the songs fell into mediocrity. Most listeners beyond his most dedicated fans never gave the songs on Mind of Mine a second listen, or had sex to any of them outside of “Pillow Talk.”

And yet, something about this bad, sad music encouraged me to create an unsolvable concept of Zayn (and his feelings) that I couldn’t leave untouched. In the ether of  Mind of Mine, was a world that felt fleeting, almost unattainable, but also warm and familiar. All at once, I wanted to stay in Zayn’s universe forever. Lyrics like, “I think I know she don’t love me/ that’s why I fuck her right,” on “She Don’t Love Me,” conjured memories of melodrama and longing. It illustrated that sweet agony between closeness and distance, and because I didn’t have the firsthand experience of what it felt like, Zayn’s description  felt so glamorous and enticing.

There is a discomfort written deep into the DNA of Zayn’s career.

Two years later, what do we make of a new album that exists in the afterlife of a debut that felt like it was trying too hard? A release from a young, eager pop star full of creative energy and, quite obviously, the resources to push his boundaries? Ok, so you smoke cigarettes now. But, where are the shimmery sex bops and slow jams? Or more broadly, what is it about the intersection of sad and sexy that is simply delicious? There is a discomfort, written deep into the DNA of Zayn’s career. You can even  find it on the look on his face—a sadness that lingers from an overly commercial career that he seemingly never wanted but would be ill-advised not to accept. His first solo album anchored itself upon feelings of distance, longing, and loneliness; desire, nostalgia and a raw approach to sex that prioritized predictability.

His follow-up, Icarus Falls is a 27-song spectacular that was led by 6 singles. An album of this length is a daunting project, and clocking in at almost an hour and a half, its purposefully grand and cinematic, and as a symptom of this, almost isolating. At the risk of coming across as overly commercial or over-produced, the accompanying music videos for “Let Me” and “Sour Diesel” take on an action hero narrative—where I thought Zayn would deny pop for a truly R&B sound, the album confronts its listener’s expectations, reminding us that here we have not only a pop album, but an artist accepting their status as a pop star.

The angst and rebellion of his career’s adolescence has been shed, and perhaps Zayn is not as much of a complicated figure as we once led to believe, but still very much brooding. I’m uninterested in the power ballads and worship-at-the-church-of-Gigi Hadid stadium fillers, but the more soulful, simpler tracks found on the second half of the album were entertaining. That being said, several tracks on the album felt flimsy and forgettable, though their content and style demand authenticity and conviction. It’s supposed R&B influence often comes across as an unanswered suggestion. Considering its length, the album is long- winded, most songs are made of anthemic, soaring passages, anchored by the pre-released singles that provide most of the sonic variety on the album. Throughout the album, any semblance of texture is absent. There’s little to grip onto, making the songs feel unbearably neat and overprocessed, slick like a black and white perfume advertisement, despite their catchy melodies and rhythms.  

Fans on Twitter speculated that Zayn’s first album was an experiment, and that Icarus Falls was Zayn coming into himself, which struck me—I failed to consider, or even fathom, that this was the “true self” Zayn risked everything to reveal. Though I struggle to admit it, Icarus Falls leaves me with the impression that for Zayn has decided to forego the image of the misunderstood bad boy who wanted to sing about lust and loss. While palatable and ripe for usage in teen soap operas, there were as no truly leathery, thick-with-smoke R&B moments on the album. The second half of the album did perform better than the first half, juicy with unique listening experiences—the phrasing in the stripped-down, melancholic “Good Guy” felt unorthodox for Zayn, while its spaghetti western twist was an alluring enhancement to the action hero narrative of the album. Elsewhere on the album, there are moments that fun and catchy, such as the upbeat pop track “Wish You Knew.”

While I expected this album to continue, and even improve what Mind of Mine had established, his 27-song epic fell short on my expectations, but wasn’t a disappointment

From boyish charm to an adolescent angst, this installment in Zayn’s career shows maturity, but very little of the artistic potential I see so much of. Perhaps this is the process of editing, or even sacrificing, your creative aspirations in order to pursue your true self. However, it seems as if finally having the chance to establish your work becomes a more difficult performance, especially with the considerable weight of expectations from an audience of thousands. While I expected this album to continue, and even improve what Mind of Mine had established, his 27-song epic fell short on my expectations, but wasn’t a disappointment. After breaking the hearts of millions of fans and leaving one of the most beloved and successful boy bands to gain creative control, I’m hesitant to admit that the risk has paid off. I often catch myself listening to R&B acts like Majid Jordan and Miguel, wondering why Zayn—with such a powerful, attractive voice and, let’s be real, looks to match—never considered taking on a similar sound, instead of opting for elaborate pop anthems.

Perhaps what’s missing on Icarus Falls is that the vast emotional landscape on Mind of Mine, where Zayn painted an intimate, vivid portrait about sadness and sex. Though the breathy pledges Zayn makes on “Let Me” stirs the thrill of a familiar kind of romantic sincerity found in One Direction’s repertoire, I wasn’t particularly moved by the album. “Entertainer” was reminiscent of the textures in Mind of Mine, but that was the only glimpse I caught of the Zayn I once loved so dearly, the one who understood such delicate facets of emotion like light filtering through a window shade. The album lacked the balance of sweetness and suffering that I was so convinced would elevate Zayn to be considered seriously as an R&B artist. I thought we wanted the same things. Ultimately, it is up to me to decide to either stick by my man who understood the fears I once had, and hope he’ll change (we all know how that goes) or to seek refuge in beloved R&B acts like SZA and Daniel Caesar.

As a child, I felt the whole world was just at the end of my street, where I was too young to go but so eager to understand. I felt stuck, as if the world was leaving me behind, and I pledged to myself to chase those experiences. I was so sure that would make my life momentous and rich. Zayn’s capacity to articulate—both sonically and lyrically—the experience of being so close yet so far, of wanting and needing but being unable to receive. Since moving out of the suburbs and into the city, I now have the ability to travel through space as I desire, to chase what glamour life offers me, to understand the ecstacy of living. The world Zayn creates, one of luxury and rebellion, of escape and romance, reminds me so clearly of the world I once dreamt of.

I may never truly understand the force behind why I became a Directioner at age 21. Though the sun seems to have set on Zayn and I, I’ll keep the diary pages I’ve adorned with his name. So close to harmony and suddenly a million miles apart, Zayn’s first album sung to a kind of fear of being left behind, or a longing deep in my memory. With no chance at reconciliation on the horizon, I feel as if a chapter has closed, and a new, although less powerful relationship with Zayn’s music emerges.

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