What do we know about Zayn Malik now, almost two years into his career as a solo artist? He wants to be cool and project sex (this, in opposition to the inherent sanitization of One Direction, was made very clear from the jump). He is quiet, brooding, and mysterious—an archetype, certainly, but one that he plays quite well.
The persona is coherent and easy to buy; musically, though, it’s a bit of a different story. First single “Pillowtalk” was a loud post-dubstep banger about fucking that proved to be a lasting hit, but the album that followed was a decidedly muted affair that assumed you could prop a whole album pop album up on ambiance and atmosphere. “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” his duet with Taylor Swift off the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack, was a continuation of this strategy, using Zayn’s well-crafted sex appeal to sell a duet that was middling on its own merits. Things got better, in my estimation at least, with “Still Got Time,” the collaboration with Partynextdoor released back in the spring. Purring over a typically great, abstract guitar loop from Frank Dukes, Zayn sounded relaxed and at ease trying to convince a girl that she’s too young to be worried about love.
That song was a welcome respite from the serious, tightly-coiled tracks he had released previously, and was also a necessary experiment that signaled that Zayn was still exploring what his music should sound like. In that sense, then, his new single “Dusk Till Dawn,” a duet with Sia, is a bit of a step backwards. With its theatrical thrust from quiet verse to loud chorus, it mimics his early singles, but when Sia’s voice enters she immediately tags it as her own, not stealing the song as much as highlighting the similarities it shares with her long catalog of crashing ballads.
In theory, a Zayn and Sia collaboration could be exciting, especially if he is shaking himself out of the hermetic cocoon he built with his first album. Alas, the end result is fairly predictable and mostly uninteresting, even if the potential of Zayn maneuvering his way through the pop world remains intriguing, somewhere out there in the distance.