It would be difficult to explore Zayn Malik and his new album, Nobody is Listening, without mentioning One Direction—which is perhaps the reason all five former members have tried to establish, and even prove, their individuality. With an outpouring of disappointing solo tracks and well–intentioned but poorly executed albums, some of the former boyband stars have begun growing into their own skin while others falter. Nobody is Listening lands Malik in the former category, marking a clear step in his personal journey and improving upon his past work.
Malik shows maturity and growth on his latest project through a more developed exploration into romance, sexual connection, and introspection. Restraint colors the 11 tracks as Malik further explores his own artistic identity. He continues searching for the full potential of his soothing voice, showcased well on “Better”—a song that conjures up the atmosphere of a low–key cafe. Evidence of his experimentation presents itself from the outset of the album with opening track “Calamity,” a brooding Ed Sheeran–esque rap that feels a bit juvenile yet adventurous in its own manner. Malik still seems to be finding his way with Nobody is Listening but shows promise in his journey to develop an individual sound, something he lacked in his previous albums.
The first to part ways from the massively popular boyband, Malik had a lot to live up to with the release of his debut solo album Mind of Mine (2016). His initial independent streak reflected a desperation for both creative freedom and individual identity after five years of being a part of a package deal. The sultry album took on more explicit themes like sex and drugs, a change from his days singing appropriately clean pop–rock in One Direction. Malik had previously admitted to feeling out of his element during his time in the group, explaining, “If I would sing a hook or a verse slightly R&B, or slightly myself, it would always be recorded 50 times until there was a straight version that was pop."
Shedding the restrictions of One Direction’s vigorously maintained public image and employing a markedly different sound paid off commercially, with both the album and his single "PILLOWTALK" peaking on the Billboard charts at No. 1. Still, Mind of Mine felt repetitive in its sexuality and didn't bear much heart lyrically during its many love songs, despite moments of unabashed infatuation from tracks like "INTERMISSION: fLoWeR."
In 2018, Malik released Icarus Falls, a conceptual album meant to explore the flight and fall of the mythical Icarus. Even with its heady themes, the project delivered more of the same. In “Back To Life,” he details redemption through the arms of his partner ... whom he loves to have sex with in "Let Me,” “Natural,” “Common,” and so on. While receiving mixed reviews from critics, Icarus Falls flopped commercially and drew comments labeling its 29–song track list a "data dump." Like Icarus, who infamously crashed while attempting the "transition from boyhood to manhood," Malik fell a bit short with his highly ambitious sophomore album. With the album's indifferent reception came Malik's realization that "nobody is listening," perhaps giving him the space he needed to reflect and work on his next studio album.
Malik’s break from One Direction’s genre clearly stems from an artist deeply inspired by the R&B scene, but his discography as it stands still lends itself more to pop. Since the dissolution of the group in 2015, the majority of its ex–members have fallen victim to unremarkable or confused music, but one has risen above the rest. Rather than shying away from the pop–rock roots of the boyband like Malik, former bandmate Harry Styles has been leaning into the genre and running away with it. With two back–to–back No. 1 albums as well as a shining charisma big enough to support his chart–topping aspirations, Styles has emerged as a breakout from One Direction and has firmly cemented himself as an artist separate from his past. From the folksy, dance–around–the–campfire feel of “Canyon Moon” to naked vulnerability in “From the Dining Table,” Styles’ solo career is marked by a self–assured sound centered around adventurous rock.
One Direction's other fledgling artists have yet to replicate Styles' success, and not for lack of trying. Like Styles, Niall Horan seemed to have a strong sense of direction when it came to his music with his debut solo album Flicker (2017), citing Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles as major influences. However, both Flicker and its successor Heartbreak Weather (2020) were lukewarmly met and characterized as generic Ed Sheeran imitators lifted by a few gems. Horan seems to shy away from risk and true emotion, sometimes fumbling around shallow lyrics like "tell me what you want because you know I want it too/let's skip all the small talk and go straight up to your room." Horan joins Malik as an artist who hasn't quite found his footing, but his endearingly open emotion on tracks like "Still" show he has the potential to discover it.
Unfortunately, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson fared considerably worse compared to their former bandmates. Critics tore apart Payne's debut album, LP1 (2019), which could be described harshly as laden with flat bravado and borderline–creepy innuendo ("baby, why you always act like you don't want me/don't make me bring up your dirty laundry"), and described mildly as competent or generic. Critics didn't spare Tomlinson's lackluster album either, slamming Walls (2020) as a "depressing Xerox of people like Coldplay and Oasis." Tomlinson and his debut clung firmly to the routines of One Direction—to his own detriment—even as the last of the group to foray into a solo music career.
In 2010, Simon Cowell told each Malik, Styles, Horan, Payne, and Tomlinson they wouldn't be able to make it as musicians on their own. A decade later, the One Direction alumni struggled to navigate their solo careers under the pressure to disprove Cowell's declaration. With some successes and some failures, most of the former members are still trying to find independence and venture away from the comfort of unexceptional pop music. Even so, they all have the resources, connections, and time to grow out of their One Direction identities and make something special—it's up to them where they go next.