Zayn Malik, the prodigal son of One Direction, made his solo television debut last night on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Closing out the show—which included J.Lo, Jay Leno, and Khloe Kardashian—Zayn sang "It's You," the second song from his forthcoming album, a tune that signaled it was bedtime.
"It's You" is a ballad: slow, a little creepy, and, at points, hauntingly beautiful. It's sparse: two verses, a bridge, and a chorus of the words "It's you" repeated six times. But there's an emotion that builds, inside of Zayn's rather impressive vocal runs as he sings "it's you" up a couple of octaves.
The love song has a beautiful beginning with a sharp edge of betrayal. "Tell me your lies/Because I just can't face it," he sings in the pre-chorus, only to follow with a verse with the words, "So my silence won't/Be mistaken for believing/Am I wrong for wanting us to make it?"
The simplicity keeps this song vague; we don't know if it's about Gigi Hadid (Zayn's current love) or Perri Edwards (his past). But the track feels made for radio play—and not performance.
"It's You" fits well within the pop music that's been created by men over the past two years. Zayn's love ballad is not that unlike Charlie Puth's "One Call Away" or Justin Bieber's "Love Yourself." Right now the radio loves a male performer with solid falsetto. Think Jason Derulo, Adam Levine, Justin Bieber, Nick Jonas, The Weeknd.
But there's something about "It's You" that hangs it up. Maybe it felt boring because Zayn's delivery of it was so uninspiring. Sure, singing a song like this live requires concentration and focus, but Zayn didn't move for the entirety of his performance—except to fix his earpiece.
Barely moving might work when there are four other boys standing on the stage, taking turns singing—the camera can switch between each guy. But as a solo artist, standing so still makes you feel distant from your audience; you're an artist with listeners instead of an engaged performer.
While that swaying nonchalance might keep his post-One Direction fandom engaged, it's probably not going to win over potential new fans. But that might be Zayn's statement: He's not here to make a Justin Timberlake-esque transformation into more fluffy pop music.
When talking to Billboard in January about his past in One Direction he said, "I’d sit and wonder, ‘If the fans knew how it worked, what would they think?’ My argument was: People are more intelligent than that. They want to hear what’s real, so why don’t we write some stuff that we’re actually going through?"
And that's what we've heard from Zayn so far: The moody number one hit "Pillowtalk" and the love ballad "It's You."
He might not have found the sweet spot of interesting performance and beautiful song just yet, but Zayn's certainly on his way somewhere new.
Zayn's debut album Mind of Mine will be released on March 25.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.