Zayn Malik’s solo career since leaving the confines of One Direction has been a mixed bag, a display of massive potential mixed with some notable letdowns. The best tracks from his 2016 debut album Mind of Mine (mostly the ones produced by frequent collaborator Malay) adeptly drew inspiration from moody R&B stars like The Weeknd and Frank Ocean, while showcasing a phenomenal vocal ability and tinges of Zayn’s own Pakistani heritage. However, Zayn has occasionally let his aesthetic slip into generic pop-R&B background noise… while the Taylor Swift duet “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” was a massive hit, it perhaps best exemplified how Zayn could potentially have his uniqueness watered down by the major label pop machine, and slip into pop star anonymity.
Zayn’s latest solo singles following the release of Mind of Mine seemed to find him flailing about for a new sonic direction (pun intended), and while they were mostly solid as individual tracks, none of them were knockouts on their own… until now. Last week, Zayn unexpectedly dropped “Sour Diesel”, his first collaboration with Malay since Mind of Mine, and arguably his best solo track to date. And “unexpected” is indeed the key word here, as the song feels totally unlike anything the young star has attempted before. Opening with deep, pulsating bass, the track soon shifts into an all-out throwback funk jam, with Zayn flexing his vocal range like never before over Stevie Wonder-influenced keyboards, a delectably groovy bassline, and a scorching guitar solo. The shocking triumph of this song has to be heard to be believed. This is a serious contender for pop song of the year, and expectations for Zayn’s sophomore album should deservedly skyrocket.