A lot has happened since Zayn Malik became the first member of One Direction to leave the band back in 2015. Harry Styles legitimately became a superstar in 2017 (if he wasn’t already one) with the release of his first self-titled solo album, spearheaded by the critically-acclaimed hit single, “Sign of the Times.” Not to mention, the dude featured as a solider in the Christopher Nolan-directed film, Dunkirk (the movie came out the same year as his album), another huge commercial accomplishment within the cinema landscape.
As far as the other group members go; Niall Horan went on a pretty successful tour following the release of his own solo project in 2017 (Flicker), Louis Tomlinson has been seemingly non-existent for three years (he has only one song really worth mentioning), and Liam Payne obtained a hit single with Quavo of all people. That leaves Zayn, a superstar in his own right, always moving at the beat of his own drum. He has the talent to be just as poignant as Harry is right now, but doesn’t care too. Unlike the rest of the band, Zayn doesn’t need a co-sign from a famous rapper (I’m not counting the Lil Wayne and Chris Brown remixes from a couple of his songs from Mind of Mine), or a meaningful role in a movie to be heard. He just wants to make music and enter the spotlight when need be.
For the most part, Zayn’s formula for success has worked. He amassed his own enormous single with Taylor Swift off of the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack back in 2016, and wrote an autobiography shortly after. Ever since then though, Malik has continued to move mysteriously. Fittingly, he named his newest album, Icarus Falls, a phrase that originates from the Greek mythological character who tragically represents the theme of “falling at the hands of hubris.” One of Zayn’s biggest strengths continues to be his constant restraint of allowing fame and fortune to take hold of him. Icarus Falls’ thematic elements do an admirable job of reflecting that mindset.
Across 27 songs, Malik keeps his obscure persona in-tact. At face value, many of his lyrics may come off as arbitrary (literally the first words on the entire album are, “hey baby, your sex has meaning”), but Zayn’s moody tone for the most part falls in line with what he’s been trying to do since the start of his solo career. No one necessarily knows who Malik is talking about when he introduces the concept of love for the first ten tracks (mainly on “Let Me,” “Natural,” and “Tonight”), and fans shouldn’t care because he’s rarely been outspoken about what’s happening in his personal life.
Plenty of mainstream artists are doing the exact same thing Malik is doing on Icarus Falls, whether it be the bombastic choruses, sleek R&B production, or melancholy songwriting. Undoubtedly, the blueprint is catchy, and always has been, but thankfully Malik incorporates some other influences into the engineering and mixing, specifically in the latter half of the album. There are very few instances where a guitar riff pops up, but when it does, the addition reckons a great deal of texture ( like on the sensual “Good Guy”). The former One Direction member also utilizes some good ole’ 70s funk on the incredibly infectious “Sour Diesel.” It’s moments like these where Malik occasionally leaves his comfort zone to show some range, both melodically, and production-wise.
The contemplative nature of Icarus Falls climaxes on “Rainberry,” where Malik describes the calamitous feeling of betrayal over jittery keys and a whirling synth. The reflective essence of his songwriting also finds itself at the forefront of “Back to Life,” where Malik chronicles his drug use, and how paranoid he can become without the reliance of certain substances (“Honestly, she’s the only one looking over me…if I lose the fight, she’ll bring me back to life”), a topic that many should start to take seriously nowadays.
The album’s biggest weakness is undoubtedly its drawn-out length. Malik for the most part does a formidable job in keeping things exciting, but there’s easily one or two instances where bland wordplay and lazy verses rear its ugly head, specifically on the dancehall-inspired Nicki Minaj feature, “No Candle, No Light” (“I woke up on the wrong side of ya”). Even the hit single “You Wish You New” develops into a very run-of-the-mill pop song with trite lyrics and a cookie cutter beat, something one can normally find on any radio station.
However, for an hour and a half of music, Malik still manages to keep his stylistic choices diverse and exciting, even if his lovesick attitude runs dry for a few portions of the album. Unlike most modern millenial pop artists, Zayn’s bad boy figure rarely displays corniness. Instead, he approaches the persona with great care, and genuinely attempts to create something aesthetically different from his contemporaries. Icarus Falls isn’t anything amazing, but Malik’s thoughtful intentions surely put him in a higher echelon of top-notch pop musicians; a place where he probably never intended to be. Either way, he’s there now, and will be for the foreseeable future.