Do good things come to R&B fans who wait? After teasing listeners for months following his 2016 debut solo album “Mind of Mine,” former One Direction star Zayn Malik dropped “Icarus Falls” Dec. 14. But the stretch between initial promotion for “Icarus Falls” – in September 2017, Zayn told The FADER that he had “kind of finalized it”, though he was unable to resist fiddling with individual tracks – and its ultimate release isn’t the only endurance test Zayn has subjected fans to: A 27-song behemoth, “Icarus Falls” clocks in at 88 minutes. Although “Icarus Falls” shows flashes of talent, most notably Zayn’s vocals, album concept and homage paid to Islamic devotional music, long stretches toward the beginning of the album prove to be forgettable, albeit expertly produced, R&B-flavored pop whose excesses need pruning.
Throughout the first twelve tracks on “Icarus Falls,” Zayn lauds the constancy and dependability of a lover, likely Gigi Hadid, though the couple’s on-again-off-again relationship has regularly served as tabloid fodder. (Speculation of another breakup has emerged since the album’s release.) These songs are thematically uncomplicated – Zayn’s plea on “Let Me,” his first post-“Mind of Mine” single to appear on “Icarus Falls,” to “Let me be your man/So I can love you” encapsulates the idyllic, rose-tinted love story he is telling until “Icarus Interlude.”
Musically, too, the first half of “Icarus Falls” plays it safe. Zayn has written variation after variation on the dance-y mid-tempo ballad, grounded in reliable pop chord progressions and textured by electronic effects which cloak these tracks in a gauzy, soaring finish. Although this portion of the album is bloated, Zayn’s decisions, down to the production, feel intentional: He’s seeking here a hazy, almost celestial ambiance. So when Zayn croons on “Flight of the Stars” that he would follow Hadid “through Armageddon…to the stars,” it’s not hard to picture our Pakistani Icarus straining against gravity, adorned in the silvery wings he positions center stage on the album cover.
Of course, per the myth, these wings aren’t metal but delicate wax, and as Zayn makes explicit in this project’s title, every young lover gets his heartbreak, every superstar his fall from grace. After “I Don’t Mind” assures undying devotion, the mood takes a sharp turn with “Icarus Interlude,” which closes the first CD on the physical album.
Here, Zayn’s focus shifts from the peace his closest relationships have afforded him to the empty senselessness of fame, the leeches vying to suck him dry of wealth and stature. He’s most concerned with the youth (read: innocence) he frets he’s irrevocably lost, an anxiety he makes explicit on “Good Years”: “I close my eyes and see a crowd of a thousand tears/I pray to God I didn’t waste all my good years.” The romances, too, become darker, with tracks like “Rainberry,” “Satisfaction” and “Too Much” chronicling relationships which infidelity and time have worn thin.
As the album's emotional climate grows moodier, Zayn seems musically emboldened. Although most of the B-side lives in the same hazy R&B space characterizing the rest of the album, “Sour Diesel” draws on classic rock, and “No Candle No Light,” which features Nicki Minaj, reflects electronica influences. More interesting, however, are the flickers of older, non-western genres which appear throughout “Icarus Falls”: Zayn owes his modal tremolos (best evident towards the beginning of “Back to Life” and the end of “Icarus Interlude”) to qawwali singing, a style applied in Islamic worship music. These nods to a potent heritage – Zayn speaks Urdu and reads Arabic, has faced backlash for pro-Palestinian views, and publicly identified as Muslim until November 2018 – are poignant and rich, fading all too quickly into the electronic backdrop.
Despite its brazen emphases (the blue-singed wings, the interlude, the constant references to space, flight, and falling), I’ve also come to admire Zayn’s artistic vision. He could do without the 12-track buildup, perhaps, but his recasting of the Icarus story as a meditation on fame and redemption is genuinely impressive and moving. At the close of this album, listeners are left wondering whether the hour and a half they’ve spent with “Icarus Falls” was entirely worth it, but happy to have witnessed this latest moment in Zayn’s move toward mature, thoughtful music-making.