Zayn Lets His Guard Down on ‘Room Under the Stairs,’ but Teeters Between Reinvention and Reintroduction: Album Review

When Zayn Malik introduced himself as a member of One Direction — one of the most popular boy bands in history — he did so under the guise of being the broody and mysterious one. The Bradford-born singer very rarely spoke at length in interviews, and was the first to announce his departure from the group in 2015 to pursue his own solo career. His debut single, the sex-fueled “Pillowtalk” debuted at No. 1 on UK Singles Chart and the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Its parent LP, “Mind of Mine,” produced by Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange” producer Malay, fulfilled expectations that he would flex his falsettos and high notes for lucious R&B runs.

The album was a promising launch for a solo career, but Zayn himself was struggling with the anxiety of leaving the overly controlled environment of a manufactured boy band to define what kind of artist he could be on his own. “Mind of Mine” wasn’t very lyrically revealing, but on social media, Zayn issued lengthy explanations as to why and how this anxiety led him to cancel numerous live performances. His follow up albums, the 27-track “Icarus Falls” and the ironically titled “Nobody Is Listening,” harvested a few gems, but the projects lacked a cohesive message. Zayn also was not up for the traditional promotion game and declined many of the interviews and press opportunities that came his way, another clear sign that he wasn’t ready to play.

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Three years later, he’s back with something very different: “Room Under the Stairs,” an album conceptualized in rural Pennsylvania, recorded in Georgia, and co-produced by the Nashville-based Dave Cobb, best known for his work with country and Americana mainstays including Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile and Jason Isbell.

Such pivots in sound and style usually have a backstory, and this one is no exception. Zayn — who has since become a father to a child with supermodel and ex-girlfriend Gigi Hadid — has been out of the public eye, living in the country, and says he’s been listening to a lot of music by Stapleton and Willie Nelson. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Zayn said he crafted the album entirely on guitar before bringing the bones of the project to Cobb, and the record really does depend on Cobb’s arrangement: the guitars and drums are polished, but still leave enough room for out-of-turn build-ups to some of the album’s most memorable chorus lines. Among them, opener “Dreamin,” with its smokey guitar licks, brooches on the subject of failed ambitions.

The Zayn we knew surfaces mostly in the lyrics. He’s matured enough to be grateful for the mistakes he’s made, and although he is wildly self-deprecating at points (“I fill my cup to forget her / Known it from the get up/ This my demise / My demise is what’s holdin’ me / Grabbed a hold then took control of me,” he sings in “My Woman”), it’s distinctively him. There are many beautifully arching melodies that become even more impressive as the album progresses; “Something in the Water” and “Stardust” are the only tracks that lean pop and consequently are the most fun and flirty tracks on the album.

The closing “Fuschia Sea” returns to the smooth and sultry vocal deliveries that we heard from Zayn’s previous projects, while the chorus is a total earworm: “Ferocious devotion / I can’t keep it up, i’m fallin’ into motion,” he sings.

Zayn has always been a powerful singer and that remains true with “Room Under the Stairs.” On songs like “The Time,” however, his vocal riffs and embellishments often sound too rugged or misplaced against the instrumentation. There are moments where that juxtaposition works, and when it does, the songs are soulful and raw, but at other times, some songs seemingly blend together and tend to fall flat on their own. Although it might take the average Zayn fan more than few listens to connect with the LP as a whole, the boldness of the material’s experimentation is worth putting in the effort.

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