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Album Review: Zayn’s Room Under the Stairs

By Ansharah Shakil, June 19 2024—

Zayn Malik’s musical career has been marked with twists and turns, from his 2016 debut solo album Mind of Mine to his long and complex concept album Icarus Falls in 2018 to his third album Nobody is Listening released in 2021. With his latest album Room Under the Stairs, released on May 17, he’s trading R&B for a soulful, softer sound, stepping back into the spotlight and making a return on the charts. 

If Zayn cited wanting to make different music as a reason for leaving One Direction, Mind of Mine, released exactly one year after Zayn left the band, was proof of concept, a love letter to R&B. On Icarus Falls, he was even more ambitious — the album’s highs and lows were all intentional, and he dipped in and out of pop with ease. Nobody is Listening felt far more grounded and confident, but still began with the unexpected “Calamity”, a combination of rap, spoken word and poetry. What all of his music has, to this point, had in common is that tendency to provide moments of surprise, just like with his career. Room Under the Stairs is an experimentation in genre for him — It’s a vast difference from anything he’s done before, and the end result is a serene album that seems sure of itself and its sound, even if that sound itself is largely all the same. 

In the past Zayn has been at his best when he leans into other genres — just recently when he joined Pakistani trio AUR for “Tu Hai Kahan”, in the Qawwali-inspired 2016 track “INTERMISSION: fLoWer” or singing lyrics from Mohammed Rafi’s “Chaudhvin Ka Chand” in 2021’s “Tightrope.” In “Tightrope” the lyric “We are who we are when we’re alone” called back to “We are who we are when no one’s watching” from “I Won’t Mind” — arguably one of Zayn’s greatest (albeit unreleased) songs because of its stripped-down, simple intimacy. That vulnerability is a quality that Room Under the Stairs is too calm and collected to accomplish, despite the fact that Zayn has said this is meant to be his most personal album to date. 

What it does feel like is an album that is his. The production is largely Zayn’s, alongside Dave Cobb, known for working with country and rock. And though Zayn has had successful and excellent collabs before — “wRoNg” with Kehlani, “No Candle No Light” with Nicki Minaj, “Dusk till Dawn” with Sia, “When Love’s Around” with Syd or even the infamous “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” collaboration with Taylor Swift  — there are none to be found on the 15-track version of Room Under the Stairs or the Z-sides version, released on May 20 with five additional songs. 

Opening track “Dreamin” starts off both versions and sets the tone for the album: joining Zayn’s trademark falsettos are country and folk-influenced balmy guitars and drums, the minimalist production letting his agile vocals take centre stage. On first single “What I Am” Zayn’s lyrics are honest, tugging at the heartstrings when he sings, “Don’t take me for what I’m sayin’, just take me for what I am.” 

The Z-sides album includes the demo version of “Alienated”, an introspective, blues-inspired track. The first Z-side, ​​“Ignorance isn’t Bliss”, is made sharply defiant by its production. In “Lied To” the acoustic guitar compliments Zayn’s elegant voice, especially in the chorus when he sings “You do me right / You stay by my side”, stretching out the word “you” like a declaration of love before effortlessly switching into a lower range for the bridge. 

These songs could easily have replaced more forgettable songs like “My Woman” and “The Time”, or “Concrete Kisses”, which is a miss in terms of production and lyrics. These three are examples of how strong vocals can’t quite save some of the songs, which are similar enough that they blend together. “How It Feels”, on the other hand, is a standout, dissolving into a gorgeous falsetto near the end. Following track “Stardust” is stunning — amongst its soft vocals and glittering keys are sweet lyrics that just bypass being too trite.

“Birds on a Cloud” starts off similar to the other tracks, but the guitars pick up twenty seconds in, mildly upbeat like the soundtrack of an indie film. By the end it’s cemented itself as one of the strongest tracks on the album. When Zayn references his daughter in “Shoot at Will”, it’s another lovely track, a moment of clarity. But “False Start” knocks everything else out of the park: bright and alive, it carries the momentum of its stomping rhythms and sublime high notes all the way to the end, each part of the song working together in harmony. Like Room Under the Stairs as a whole, it feels like a transformation: a new chapter for Zayn in his career, and one the audience can take as is. 

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