Zayn’s most valuable asset has always been his voice. Throughout his four albums with One Direction, his falsetto memorably crested key moments of some of the band’s biggest singles, and “Zayn high notes” remains a popular YouTube search, yielding multiple videos with millions (and millions) of views. His first solo album, 2016’s Mind of Mine, found him weaponizing that instrument on maximalist, slightly mechanized pop that nevertheless occasionally buried his pipes under layers of production sheen. It’s a trend the singer stepped away from on 2018’s Icarus Falls, though the more intimate sonic moments hid inside a labyrinthine 30-song tracklist that unspooled over a languid 90 minutes.
That’s why Nobody Is Listening, Zayn’s third and most accessible album yet, feels like such a gear shift. Where debut single “Pillowtalk” boasts stadium drums he seems to have to shout over, his latest, “Vibez,” utilizes a breezy backbeat that recalls ’90s R&B — and that’s one of the LP’s more produced tracks. A song like “Connexion,” on the other hand, leaves plenty of open space between its acoustic strums and gentle snaps, room where Zayn can lean in as he sings about taking off his lover’s clothes and contemplates their spark.
That instrumentation came courtesy of Brooklyn production duo Zach Seman and Roger Kleinman — known as Zach & Roger — who aimed to build the stripped-back tune using as few separate instrumental tracks as possible, partly inspired by “Best Part” by Daniel Caesar and H.E.R. But it wasn’t fully complete without the finishing touches of Zayn himself. “In this particular case, we had an idea, and we sent it over to Zayn, and Zayn finished it and elevated it, added his magic, and then it was done,” Seman tells MTV News.
Much like Zayn himself, Zach & Roger have been making music together for 10 years, both as musicians and producers, and they’ve also dipped into scoring films, including the upcoming artist doc Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide. That kind of attention to atmospheric detail, all in service of the emotion of a scene, makes their work on the minimal “Connexion” a logical fit. So does the fact that, as Kleinman says, “pop music has changed since 2016.” Instead of bombastic, they scaled back to fit a quieter, more subdued soundscape — one that allows for, to use an extremely recent example, a nearly a cappella team-up between Billie Eilish and Rosalía, two of pop’s biggest stars, spotted with shades of ASMR. “How can we make something that’s a little bit smaller but still gets the point across, and [where] an artist can really get on a song and make it their own?”
That song was “Connexion,” based around an acoustic pattern played by Kleinman and pushed forward with a “driving subtle loop” that eventually allowed Zayn ample space to bring the emotionality of his voice. The only discernible element separating the airy track’s sections is Zayn’s singing, though Seman mentions some “background ghosts” they placed in the music for reference as well. On the tune’s post-chorus, Zayn’s recognizable timbre sinks under intentional digitally processing and comes to resemble a billowy trumpet, as he sings about the ways he’s connecting with his lover.
“It is really a true collaboration in that, with our friend [songwriter] Talay Riley, we made basically the first half of that song and then gave it to Zayn, and he finished it as if we were all in the room together,” Kleinman says. “We obviously weren’t, but I think that that’s rare, especially with these big pop artists, that he really did take it and totally put life into it.” The two have, in fact, never been in a room with Zayn, in keeping with making music in the age of both COVID-19 and the prevalence of digital file-sharing technology. They likewise had no clue if their song would make the final Nobody Is Listening tracklist until the album was officially released.
“The way this business works is we’re not totally sure we’re even included until the album comes out,” Seman says. “I felt like, Thursday night, we’re taking in the fact that it’s actually on the album. We’re taking in the fact that it seems to be being pushed as a single because it was on [Spotify’s] New Music Friday, and we’re taking in the fact that Zayn did such an incredible job delivering on it.”
As the sixth song of 11 on Nobody Is Listening, “Connexion” marks a midpoint while also typifying the artist’s latest era, one of optimism and confidence as he settles into his new role as a father. Much has been about his sexual lyrics, and as one-half of a celebrity couple, scrutiny and intrigue come with the territory. But by the time Nobody Is Listening finishes, Zayn has embraced his roots, interpolating an Urdu sample and closing on a hymn-like meditation about love and its potential disappearance — all while staying front and center on his own album, often accompanied only with a guitar for color. Though “Connexion” is the only song on the album that Zach & Roger worked on, its ethos can be felt throughout the LP’s 35-minute runtime.
The ethos of its producers, meanwhile, will soon be felt elsewhere, namely on the glimmering “Cuff Your Jeans,” a bright and propulsive pop-rock tune from rising artist Claud, whose highly anticipated debut is out February 12. Zach & Roger produced that track, and compared to “Connexion,” it’s essentially Phil Spector, humming with glossy lead guitar parts and voices stacked atop each other. But what works for Claud wouldn’t necessarily work for Zayn, and vice versa. Amid all the production, you can still hear its acoustic bones.
“A timeless song is good if it can be stripped down to just someone playing it on the guitar or the piano,” Kleinman says. “With ‘Connexion,’ that is the song. You can imagine someone just playing the guitar, sitting with Zayn while he sings it. There isn’t much going on that is outside the realm of the imagination of the listener, whereas a song like ‘Firework’ by Katy Perry is so much programming and production and everything. There are a million things happening — drums, guitar, bass, synths, everything.”
“This is obviously not that. This is the opposite of that sort of production,” Seman adds. “It’s the opposite of a Dr. Luke, maxed-out-your-computer’s-tracks [song]. This is a much different way of thinking about it.”