To leave a boy band because of creative differences is one of pop music’s most tired cliches. But in the case of Zayn Malik, there might be no example more warranted.
Videos of old One Direction concerts show a disengaged Zayn, relegated to the background except for a few impressive high notes that take the casual viewer by surprise. Considered by some to have had the most vocal talent of the group, Zayn puts forward a solo debut to mark the beginning of a musical career he can finally call his own.
“Mind of Mine” is a departure from the restrictive but entirely lovable hit factory that was One Direction. While 1D’s other four members had clear indie-rock influences, Zayn’s rhythm-and-blues-infused pop veers into the lane of the newly-revered Justin Bieber while maintaining a distinct flair and plenty of room for experimentation.
That experimentation is the product of the creative freedom Zayn never had before. With restrictions set on his hair color and beard to maintain the image meticulously crafted by One Direction’s management, the control over Zayn pervaded all aspects of his life, especially music. In his first interview after leaving the band, Zayn said, “Would you listen to One Direction, sat at a party with your girl? I wouldn’t. To me, that’s not an insult, that’s me as a 22-year-old man.”
Now 23 years old with a solo career, Zayn is free to make music for a new audience. The maturity of the music doesn’t reflect someone he is trying to be, but rather someone he has been all along.
The R&B songs are smooth and provocative. On “Wrong,” R&B singer-songwriter Kehlani and Zayn trade taunts disguised as verses, dueling before coming together in a seductive sparring match sure to surprise those expecting just another 1D track. The instrumental’s trailing hi-hats and heavy bass line ooze maturity, introducing the listener to a new side of the singer.
The album’s production is spearheaded by James “Malay” Ho, known for his partnership with Frank Ocean. Malay’s touch shines on songs like “It’s You” and “Truth,” echoing his work on Ocean’s “Channel Orange” with wavy guitar chords and organ synths while allowing for Zayn to showcase a strong falsetto.
From the boy who sang Mario’s “Let Me Love You” in his 2010 audition for “The X-Factor,” the record is much more R&B than any other genre. But it occasionally steps into grooves of dance-floor pop — see “Like I Would and “Lucozade” — and classic love songs. “Fool for You” evokes an old-school vibe with a chord progression that recalls The Beatles while boasting some of Zayn’s best vocals.
Few, if any, songs on “Mind of Mine” would feel comfortable on a One Direction album — a testament to the legitimacy of Zayn’s creative differences and the newfound liberty granted by his solo career. While one could imagine “Fool for You” and hit single “Pillowtalk” as 1D cuts, Zayn’s autonomy peaks on “Flower,” an interlude where he sings in Urdu. Such an open homage to his Pakistani heritage would never have appeared during the One Direction years; he has yet to comment on the track, but its inclusion on the album points back to the experimentation and freedom Malik now enjoys.
Subtler examples of Zayn’s South Asian influences appear sprinkled throughout the album. On many songs, one can find the use of raga, a South Asian vocal method characterized by melodic runs and trills. “Flower” displays the clearest use of raga, but the chorus of “It’s You” and the album’s introduction “Mind of Mindd” also show the mark of his roots.
Where “Mind of Mine” falls short is its lyricism. The lyrics on “TiO” lack any semblance of subtlety, hammering the listener with the phrase “take it off” 30 times. As the album’s worst track, it is sure to convey the image of a try-hard rather than someone who is naturally seductive.
But Zayn had a team of songwriters working for him while he was in One Direction, and no one really listens to pop albums for lyricism, anyway. He reportedly wrote on all the songs on “Mind of Mine,” and while he definitely reveals himself to be a novice songwriter, the songs maintain a fun, easygoing quality. “Blue” has some of the album’s weakest lines — “She plays with my heart and emotion / I give her my love and devotion / She gave me her thought and a notion” — but is conversely is the album’s peak of creativity, with the familiar arpeggios of Bach’s “Suite No. 1 in G Major” serving as background vocals. And even though the first and second verses have nearly identical lyrics, the second verse is a darker, more soulful rendition that is almost unrecognizable from the first.
Overall, “Mind of Mine” is a solid foray into solo stardom with a strong R&B base and a healthy amount of variety. One could paint Zayn’s departure from One Direction as selfish or calculating, but the sheer difference in his new music from his old should be a signal of how deserving he is of a solo career. “I’ve done this before / But not like this,” he sings on standout track “Befour.” And he’s right.
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