The Zayn-aissance is officially here.
On Friday, Zayn Malik, professionally known as ZAYN, dropped his first single in two years, “Love Like This,” a sleek, two-step club track that could very well be a late contender for Song of the Summer. The former One Direction member has spent years exploring different mixtures and derivations of R&B, pop, reggae, and electronic music. Now, he seems to have settled on a breezy, UK garage sound for his next venture—something for the girls to get ready and party to, as Saweetie would say.
Given how sonically diverse and typically unfocused Malik’s projects are, who knows what listeners will actually have in store for them with his upcoming fourth album, which marks his first release since signing to Mercury Records. Whether it will finally catapult the floundering singer to Justin Bieber status is a more urgent question.
When he made his shocking exit from One Direction in 2015, Malik—the vocal standout and only non-white face in the group—was largely predicted to be 1D’s breakout solo star, à la Justin Timberlake. And for a moment in time, that seemed entirely plausible. His debut solo single, “Pillowtalk,” released under RCA Records, debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100, only the 25th new song to accomplish such a feat. His first album, Mind of Mine, topped several charts as well, including the Billboard 200 and UK Album charts.
In the time between his debut and sophomore albums, he enjoyed success with high-profile collaborations like Chris Brown’s “Back to Sleep” remix, the Sia-featuring “Dusk Till Dawn,” and “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” with Taylor Swift from the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack.
However, the subsequent years saw a sharp decline in the now-30-year-old’s popularity. His 2018 LP, Icarus Falls, a concept album based loosely around Greek mythology that was ironically very scattered, debuted at No. 61 on the Billboard 200. His last album under RCA Records, pointedly titled Nobody Is Listening, did slightly better, but only managed to reach No. 41. In pop music terms, this was nevertheless what social media would call a flop.
In comparison to some of his ex-bandmates, like Harry Styles and Niall Horan, Malik’s solo career has largely been seen as a disappointment. However, he’s managed to maintain a faithful, albeit smaller, audience online—including many holdover fans from his One Direction days—that he seemingly knows how to appease. For instance, in his announcement for Nobody Is Listening, he tweeted out “his” phone number where fans could listen to snippets of the album and receive texts from him.
Malik also appeared on a recent episode of the popular podcast Call Her Daddy, where he shared his side of the Yolanda Hadid altercation that resulted in him pleading no contest to harassment charges but serving almost a year of probation. On Twitter, his stans ate up his vague, PR-friendly response and vehemently came to his defense.
Despite the amount of fan enthusiasm that still exists online, Malik has always lacked the level of charisma and flamboyance to elevate him to an A-list performer. And nothing about his image or sound has been defiant enough to effectively sell himself as a brooding bad boy, either. This is maybe why he’s offering fans something more optimistic with “Love Like This.”
It will be interesting to see if Malik’s loyal fans can successfully mobilize around the single or if the general public will organically fall in love with him again via radio play and TikTok. If he wants a shot at long-lasting appeal, it seems like he should focus on achieving the latter.