Liam Payne is a blank canvas in need of a painter.
One Direction’s Liam Payne is basically a nothingburger, bringing little more than his voice and his name brand to his debut album LP1. That turns out to be one of the best things about it. Unlike Zayn’s third-eye R&B epics or Harry Styles’ soft-rock simulacra, LP1 doesn’t try to transcend pop. It’s a star-showcase rather than an artist-showcase, an attempt to land a few songs on the charts more than anything else. His former One Direction compadres’ solo outings have been risky but not always rewarding. LP1 clears the low bar it sets for itself with ease.
If we’re going to hang a persona on Payne, he’s the hip-hop one, the one who sounds good over the digitized snap of a phony DJ Mustard beat. The best songs here understand rap in a way a lot of pop songs don’t, like how flow alone can generate momentum (“Say It All”), and he has good chemistry with the youthful NYC star A Boogie wit da Hoodie on opener “Stack It Up.” He also gives us plenty of the usual screaming-chipmunks post-Diplo fare (“Live Forever,” “Weekend”), a Christmas song (“All I Want [For Christmas]”), and a reggaeton track with J Balvin (“Familiar”)—all while remaining resolutely anonymous.
Like many if not most male pop stars, he’s irritatingly sexist. “Hips Don’t Lie” is the kind of female-body-as-prey bullshit “Blurred Lines” should’ve killed, and “Both Ways” is as offensive and shoddily written as anyone’s said it is, fetishizing bisexual women with the cold detachment of a man absent-mindedly typing “girl on girl” into PornHub. He’s terrible at being horny, his perpetually steady, mid-volume voice sounding like it’s giving instructions rather than whispering seductions. “What I like about you is you know how to take direction,” he sings on “Rude Hours.”
At least he’s not apologizing for fucking up the way Harry Styles did on so much of last month’s overwrought, self-satisfied Fine Line. Though Payne has discussed a rough patch post-One Direction, including substance-abuse issues the binge-drinking anthem “Weekend” seems to ignore, there’s little anguish on this album—just the motions of a man making entertainment. That’s better, I suppose, than making your problems the end of the world.
Payne is not a pop star who would benefit from casting himself as a capital-A artist. What he would benefit from is a producer who does. In his milquetoast hip-hop flirtations and his slightly slippery, Michael Jackson-ish vocal timbre, he often brings to mind Justin Timberlake. Timberlake as a person, singer and presence was never particularly interesting, and what made his best music so good was his ear for producers like Timbaland, who integrated his voice into towering, brash, bold, brilliant pop.
Rather than casting his lot with goons like Steve Mac, Payne might consider calling up someone like A.G. Cook, architect of PC Music and Charli XCX’s best recent work, who might benefit from working with a guy rather than a girl he can turn into a fembot. Or the recently reformed Neptunes, who hopefully will pick up where Pharrell left off with his mind-bending beats on Ariana Grande’s Sweetener. Liam Payne is a blank canvas in need of a painter.