Halftime Leisure

ZAYN strips down his style and boldly bares his introspection in “What I Am”

April 7, 2024

Courtesy of Daniel Prakopcyk

Since the release of his third studio album Nobody Is Listening (2021), ZAYN has remained mostly out of the public eye. He’s only come out of hiding twice to release standalone projects: he worked with American singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson on “To Begin Again” (2021), and then more recently in 2023 with the Pakistani trio AUR on a reimagining of their single “Tu hai kahan” (“Where are you?”), both of which heralded very little marketing. 

From the beginning of his solo career, ZAYN has gone to great lengths to maintain his privacy—the star’s interview on Call Her Daddy in July 2023 was his first speaking engagement in six years. He moved to rural Pennsylvania in 2020 to raise his daughter, Khai, a decision he shared that was meant to shield her from the spotlight and outside influences. Being camped out on the farm, however, has also been an artistic escape for him, working away on his next studio album for the last few years in solitude. In a note posted to his social media, ZAYN announced the release of “What I Am,” the first single off of a special project named Room Under the Stairs, set to come out May 17th.  

In many ways, “What I Am” is unlike anything else in ZAYN’s discography; the song’s barebones instrumentals give it a folksy feel that contrasts heavily with the maximalist, pop-centered production of his other work. However, ZAYN also masterfully incorporates key tenants of his personal flair, resulting in a track interwoven with quintessential American country-esque elements and the stylistic runs of a Pakistani ghazal, all from an artist who got his big break in a British boyband.

ZAYN’s pivot in musical direction can be in part attributed to his new partnership with producer Dave Cobb, whose background spans Americana, country, and rock and roll. Cobb has earned numerous accolades for his work and has produced for big names like Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, and even Lady Gaga in A Star is Born (2018). ZAYN sticks out as a notable exception to this country-leaning crowd (Gaga excluded), having never really ventured into the genre until now.

With a stripped-down guitar and mellow drums, “What I Am” veers toward the sound of a laid-back country track, separate from the excitatory dramatics that are often associated with the genre’s mainstream image. A one-second intro barely allows time for the instrumentals to marinate before being instantly serenaded by the sound of ZAYN’s silky smooth vocals, ones that have always allowed him to stand out from the very start of his music career. The richness of his tone is juxtaposed with an opening line about drinking absinthe—the song might not sound like typical country, but it does immediately tick off mentioning a strong alcoholic beverage from the country checklist. It’s possible living in seclusion has pushed the star to do some self-reflection: introspection is ingrained throughout the rest of his song, as ZAYN sings about doing math that “ain’t adding up” and growing tired of “running ’round this board game.” He seems largely done with conceding to his partner, setting a boundary meant to aid in their own self-reflection: “You can know your own name, I won’t give it up.”

The pre-chorus picks up as the instrumentals build and ZAYN’s lyrics become more intense; he poses a continuous series of questions, asking “Am I crazy? Am I foolish? / Am I stupid for playin’ these games with you?” His inquisitions are followed by a set of hypotheticals developed throughout the chorus: “If I told you I loved you / Would you say that it’s fucked up? / If I told you they’re flyin’ / Would you say that you looked up?” There are no concrete answers until ZAYN finally makes a stand, urging the listener, “Don’t take me for what I’m sayin’ / Just take me for what I am / ‘Cause this is where I’m stayin’ / My two feet are in the sand.” It’s in this grounded sense of certainty that the imagery of rural Pennsylvania is best evoked, a feeling of acceptance of one’s place in the world—perhaps, only being in such a remote area can elicit this sort of realization.  

Though ZAYN’s country influences truly shine through, it would be foolish to expect the multitalented vocalist to obey the confines of one style. “What I Am,” like ZAYN’s previous work, is largely genre-defying, as evidenced by his signature riffs and runs that align more closely with traditional South Asian styles of singing, particularly that of his Pakistani background. Between acoustic guitar strums and reflective verses, ZAYN’s gentle runs induce the longing of an old-school Desi love song, just without the romance. ZAYN is also no stranger to ghazals—a kind of poetry originating from Arab roots largely sung in Pakistan—having written and recorded one for his first studio album Mind of Mine (2016), a project culturally immersed in this specific form. Having also covered Bollywood songs like “Allah Duhai Hai,” ZAYN is one of the only big Western artists to be engaged in South Asian tradition, a refreshing change of pace from other mainstream singers. 

The fact that these seemingly incompatible combinations blend so seamlessly together is a testament to ZAYN’s producing abilities—an attempt by a less mature, less seasoned artist could fall incredibly short. After all, everything new and experimental doesn’t automatically equate to avant-garde status. However, ZAYN’s myriad of practice, having mixed these melodies before in his older tracks to blend established pop and R&B production with his classic cultural sound, clearly paid off. The fact that he expertly emulates the same cohesion within a more Americana-inspired track devoid of excessive audio engineering or sound manipulation should be of no surprise; after all, the very Pakistani songs he’s taken liberty from have limited mixing and mastering, relying heavily on live instrumentation. Still, ZAYN is likely the only artist who can make this work—it’s just not a popular concept to play with.

Another notable creative pivot, ZAYN succeeds this time in creating a more lowkey single, with none of the raunchiness of his previous music. He’s been experimenting with this kind of method since Nobody is Listening, particularly in lullaby-like tunes such as “Better” and “Tightrope” in which he uses the same tender vocal techniques, displaying his especially impressive technical abilities. Even with the liberal amount of “fucked up’s” found throughout “What I Am,” ZAYN is able to smooth over the lyrics to somehow make even his cursing less jarring—his voice sands out any rough edges, as he’s always been able to do. 

Never one to rush genius, “What I Am” comes at an appropriate time, when it seems that ZAYN has been able to grow as an artist, creating the kind of music he’s been wanting to make. His eagerness has shone through, as recent months are the most active he’s been on the promotion end, practically gushing on social media about how proud he is of this upcoming project. He’s even made appearances on Hot Ones and Jimmy Fallon, practically unheard of for him considering his recent self-imposed geographical isolation. The single, and likely the album, is definitely a step away from what we’ve seen of him thus far, but his declaration rings true: considering that this is where he is staying, we must take him for what he is.

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