Promise And ‘Pillowtalk’: The Fading Potential Of Zayn Malik

After two mediocre albums and a string of disappointing singles, Zayn's once-promising solo career looks bleak.

Zayn Malik Icarus Falls

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Zayn Malik named his sophomore album after the Greek myth of Icarus; a man who flew perilously close to the sun, causing his wings to melt and fall to his untimely death.

Malik, who now goes only by his first name, released Icarus Falls in the dying moments of 2018. The record was set to be the former One Direction member’s re-introduction to music, following his self-imposed retreat from the spotlight in 2017. Yet dismal album sales and less than favourable reviews have proved a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Since the shock announcement Zayn was leaving 1D in 2015, anticipation has loomed over his every prospective move. His solo debut single, ‘Pillowtalk‘, achieved a feat One Direction never could — a Billboard Hot 100 number one single. Not bad for his first rodeo.

The track’s clumsy lyrics that read more like a horny teenager’s recount of a Netflix rom-com rather than the perils of an adult relationship — “In the bed all day, bed all day, bed all day/Fucking in and fighting on/It’s our paradise and it’s our war zone” — were overlooked in favour of the moment.

The world was witnessing pop’s next emancipated superstar, as it did so many times before with Ice-Cube, Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake.

This slinky R&B would come to fill the songs on his debut album, Mind of Mine, which charted at number one in the US, UK, Australia, and Canada.

Underneath the faux-eroticism and sometimes alienating introspection, Mind of Mine had its flashes of brilliance. Zayn’s interpolation of Qawwali music, sung in his father’s native Urdu, was a peek into the otherwise staunchly private star we had not yet seen. ‘sHe’ and ‘TiO’ provided upbeat, pop-tinged moments that felt assured, a respite from the dominating claggy R&B.

It was once again the undeniable potential of his tentative career that implored us to look past the humourless tedium of his debut record — after all, it was his only his first rodeo. Along with a supersized fanbase whose loyalty ensured his continued rarefied success, the anticipation of what Zayn would do next was engrossing enough.

Zayn Malik

Zayn in 2017. Photo via Facebook.

The First Rodeo And Beyond

In 2007, the world’s collective perception of fame was changed with Britney Spears. After a media pile-on that peaked with a Las Vegas wedding, stints in rehab and a constant stream of scandals, Spears shaved her head in front of the paparazzi in a Californian hair salon. “I don’t want everybody touching me,” she reportedly said at the time. “I’m tired of everyone touching me.”

A cultural shift towards criticising the darker corners of celebrity has extended to the media and fans alike. In his eponymously titled memoir, Zayn revealed his struggles with anxiety and an eating disorder while he was in One Direction.

Citing anxiety as the main cause, Zayn has yet to tour as a solo artist. Loose promises of tours are now just easter eggs in rare interviews. In 2017, he implored that “a tour is definitely on the cards”, after a string of cancelled shows in London, Dubai and Japan.

Gawky and unimaginative, Dusk Til’ Dawn’ was a backward step in Zayn’s now two-year solo career.

Indecision and a lack of editing plague his musical output. Following Mind of Mine, throwaway singles became commonplace. First was an unlikely collaboration with Taylor Swift, for the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack. Baudy yet innocuous, ‘I Don’t Wanna Live Forever’ sees the two trade sexual overtures over an unimaginative Jack Antonoff production. It was a comfortable and logical move for Zayn, one which saw the pair debut at number six on the Billboard Hot 100.

‘Still Got Time’, the tropical, R&B-cum-dance collaboration with PARTYNEXTDOOR was Zayn’s first contemporary hit free from predictable vocal frills and maudlin subtext. Joining producers Murda Beatz (Drake, French Montanna, and Gucci Mane) and Frank Dukes (Travis Scott, Kanye West, Post Malone, and The Weeknd) temporarily exiled Zayn from a puerile and confused musical purgatory. Two years later, ‘Still Got Time’ is as refreshing as it was when first released.

This momentum ended with his next single, ‘Dusk Til’ Dawn’. The theatrical duet with Sia was accompanied by a predictable lashing of vocal drama, mimicking his past collaboration with Taylor Swift — something nobody wanted to hear more of. Gawky and unimaginative, it was a backward step in Zayn’s now two-year solo career.

Zayn Malik One Direction

With One Direction in 2014. Photo via Facebook.

No Direction

Jolting from pop ballads and indistinguishable R&B tunes, the intrigue and promise that swathed Zayn began to wane with each misstep. No longer the only 1D member to release a solo album, he was now joined by Harry Styles and Niall Horan whose soft-rock and acoustic debuts were applauded as authentic and inspired.

Up until now, Zayn’s career had hinged on an antithetical response to his clinical, good-boy image in One Direction. Smoking weed, singing about “fucking” and rebuking the concept of celebrity became a sticking point in interviews.

As Zayn’s grip on the zeitgeist slips, word-of-mouth becomes a less reliable marketing model.

“I don’t really want to do shitloads of promotion,” he told FADER discussing his then-upcoming album, Icarus Falls. “I’ll do the music interviews and stuff like that, that actually have something to do with what I’m doing. But a lot of public interviews and being on TV, to me, is more about being a social character, about being a — what’s the word for it, when people are on TV but don’t do anything? Reality TV stars? I don’t buy into that side of things. I just want to do my music. If people hear about me from their friend, it’s cooler than me being in their face all the time.”

Experiencing a level of stardom widely compared to that of The Beatles, One Direction’s enduring fame has kept Zayn afloat despite his stumbles. But as his grip on the zeitgeist slips, word-of-mouth becomes a less reliable marketing model.

Originally scheduled for release in September 2017, Icarus Falls dropped December 14, 2018. Totalling a projected 15-20,000 album-equivalent units sold, including digital sales and streaming, such poor sales were a dismal result.

Comparatively, Mind of Mine sold 157,000 album-equivalent units, 112,000 of which were pure album sales. The lack of marketing leading up to the album’s release has been referenced as a major factor for its poor performance. Tinashe, who has received similar criticism for her fledgling music career, totalled 10,000 album-equivalent units with Joyride in 2018.

Singles released in the lead-up to the album were iterations of Zayn’s early career. The opening line of ‘Let Me’, “Sweet baby, our sex has meaning”, revives the more callow moments of Mind of Mine. ‘Entertainer’, which was released after his breakup with Gigi Hadid, expounded the darker side of love: “You were my favourite entertainer I watch you, and laugh and fuck with you.” Casting a Gigi-lookalike read as particularly bitter. The couple rekindled their relationship soon after.

Icarus Has Been Overtaken

The promise of Zayn stumbling on his niche has always outweighed his peripatetic musical output, but his latest string of singles show a greater worry. The most perplexing single to date remains to be ‘Sour Diesel’. The combination of garish electric guitar and sultry vocals comes from Green Day producer, Rob Cavallo, and Channel Orange producer, James Ho. The two opposing viewpoints are stitched together like a Frankenstein flop.

If it’s an attempt to grab at the success Harry Styles and Niall Horan have achieved through their guitar-heavy, Jagger adjacent solo outputs, it’s a shoddy effort. “But there’s always ideas,” Zayn tells of his album process. “Every day I find another song that I’m swapping out with another one.” He has yet to learn that some songs should remain on the cutting room floor.

Zayn’s career serves as an ominous facsimile of the tale of Icarus.

From refusing to promote his records and a predilection for dreary duets to cancelled shows and a failure to edit long-winded albums, Zayn’s pitfalls are glaringly obvious. In April 2018, his long-term manager Sarah Stennett terminated her relationship with Zayn stating he was “challenging to work with.”

The reluctant star has remained stagnant and, now in his third year as a solo artist, the intrigue and promise that propelled him forward have inevitably slowed. Falling from the peaks of fame to the troughs of the sophomore slump, Zayn’s career serves as an ominous facsimile of the tale of Icarus.

It’s a cautionary tale of limitations but limits are meant to be pushed, risks are meant to be taken, and Zayn can break through this ceiling of his own making if he just finds a way to leave Icarus behind.

Kish Lal is a writer and critic based in New York City. She tweets about raccoons and Cardi B at @kish_lal