Harry Styles and Liam Payne released albums in December 2019. While one found continuous success, the other flopped. Now that the hype surrounding the two has settled, it’s time to discuss what transpired.
Both Styles and Payne are former members of the English-Irish boyband known as One Direction, along with Zayn Malik, Louis Tomlinson, and Niall Horan. A global sensation, the band sold over 50 million copies of their albums with four albums debuting at number one on the US Billboard 200. The band was a cultural phenomenon and remained so until their break up in 2015. While each member has gone on to pursue solo careers, Harry Styles has achieved the highest rate of commercial success.
After Styles released his eponymous debut album, it was clear to fans and critics that Styles had more than enough talent to succeed without the contribution of his bandmates. The album debuted at No. 1 on the US Billboard 200 in 2017 and went on to earn various awards and critical acclaim. Unlike his pop-counterparts and former bandmates, Styles focused on soft rock, rock, britpop, and pop. Hailed as “the savior of rock” by the National Public Radio, it was clear that Styles was determined to carve a new path in the music industry and represent himself through his music.
In December 2019, his second album, Fine Line, debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200. The combination of pop, rock, psychedelic pop, funk, folk, soul, and indie pop further proved his talents. With various cultural influences and instruments, each song is distinctly unique unto itself. Despite the disconnected genres, Styles combines the styles to create one comprehensive piece.
The album is an introspective take on love and is comprised of 12 songs with a total runtime of 46 minutes. Tracks such as “Golden”, “Watermelon Sugar”, and “Adore You” explore the euphoria of getting to know one’s partner and falling in love. Ballads such as “Cherry”, “Falling”, and “To be so lonely” explore the devastation that comes with the end of a relationship and the accompanying grief. The title track and the last song on the album, “Fine Line,” is a story of acceptance that comes after a break-up. “Fine Line” is a vulnerable album with carefully crafted lyrics and melodies that are authentically Harry Styles.
Liam Payne, on the other hand, did not fare so well.
With both artists releasing their albums a week apart, comparisons were unavoidable. Payne’s debut album, LP1, debuted at No. 111 on the US Billboard 200 chart. Compared to former bandmates Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, and Niall Horan, who debuted at number one on the US Billboard charts, it was a lukewarm reception. Comprised of 17 songs, the album is 54 minutes of lyrics about money and sex, and melodies that felt overly familiar. I couldn’t escape the feeling that I heard each song before.
For example, Payne’s song “Hips Don’t Lie,” resembles an early 2000s Chris Brown song. The sound is so outdated that Chris Brown has since outgrown it, leaving Payne fans wondering why he isn’t also mirroring the progression. There is an attempt to disguise the lyrics with technopop beats, but the effect drowns out the other features of his music.
On top of his outdated sound, he has lyrics that are questionable at best. In his song “Both Ways,” Payne makes statements such as “my girl, she likes it both ways, she likes the way it all taste” and “she do things you won’t believe.” The song received major backlash from fans because it seemingly fetishizes bisexual women and uses harmful stereotypes that bisexual women have been fighting against for years. While it’s doubtful that this was Payne’s intention, the lyrics were so carelessly thrown together that intentions no longer mattered.
The careless lyrics are something that haunt the entire album. This is even clearer in Payne’s song “Rude Hours,” in which lyrics such as “I won’t run the lights unless you’re close behind” and “really want to get there, let’s be safe tonight, cause we both been drinking” fill the chorus. In the song, Payne unintentionally glamorizes drunk driving in order to fulfil a one-night stand. While there are more cases of tactlessly thrown together songs in the album, these two are among the worst.
At best, Payne’s album is simply too late for its time. It would have fared better if it were released in 2015 or 2016, though some lyrics still would have been equally controversial. At worst, the album feels as if he is trying to create an oversexualized persona of himself, which comes off as disingenuous and half-hearted. From this, the reason for their varying levels of success is obvious: where it appears Payne is disingenuous, Styles is authentically himself.
From the lyrics to the instruments, Styles has been authentically himself, and it showed in both albums. In doing so, Styles proved that he could be successful without the backing of his bandmates, while Payne proved that he couldn’t.