ZAYN MALIK IS a free man. For better or for worse his new solo album, Mind Of Mine, follows the biggest pop culture story of the last year, except maybe that one. His massively publicised story, and the expectation now placed on this album, brings to mind a story to which Zayn will often be compared.
No matter where he turns in his career, the spectre of Justin Timberlake will follow him. Not since him in the early 2000’s has there been such a high-profile departure from a boy band; and each of his solo albums, with hits driven largely by Timbaland, have shaped pop music for better; 2013’s The 20/20 Experience Part I was the benchmark male artists have been trying to reach or better for three years, with artists like Beyoncé and Carly Rae Jepsen offering the best pop records since.
When Malik announced his exit from One Direction it was easy to imagine an apocalyptic scrap would break out among producers and collaborators worldwide to craft the kind of sound Zayn was heading towards on a solo LP. Cashmere Cat, Charli XCX, PC Music, Devonte Hynes, DJ Mustard, Boi-1da, Tinashe and, in my wildest dreams, Jai Paul came to mind.
What we have isn’t that kind of super-collaboration, or an entirely polished album in general, but still one with a lot of promise, a decent R&B record that isn’t afraid to stick to what it’s good at.
In the end, former Frank Ocean collaborator Malay takes charge of four tracks on the album and makes his mark. The first track with his name in the credits, “iT’s YoU”, brings to mind Ocean’s “Bad Religion” with the electric organ underneath. “BeFoUr” is where Mind of Mine takes the most cues from Timberlake, (Timberlesque?) (I’m glad nobody is paying me to write this)), and, more prominently, Miguel, the allure of whom is heard in “BoRdErSz”, the album’s standout and the closer “TiO (Take It Off)” that sees Malik adapt to unfamiliar rhythms.
Another nice touch is the interlude “fLoWer”, more folk than pop and sung in Urdu, Malik’s father’s native language that was apparently recorded in one take. It’s a break from the non-stop slow jams or low-key club sounds that populate Mind Of Mine and puts Zayn’s definitive mark on his first solo project.
As much as the album relies on the artists that paved the way, it’s as much about developing an identity, post-One Direction. 1D’s problem, despite their charm, was their unending safety. It’s not a bad thing; that philosophy produced some of the more memorable – if stunningly conventional – chart songs in the five years since their third-place X Factor finish. That, and the unbelievable schedule the band was expecting to keep, are clear reasons why Malik wanted out. There are moments in the first ten minutes of Mind Of Mine that would never fly on a 1D record. The swearing, for one, the frank lyrics on songs like “iT’s YoU” (“I won’t cover my scars / I’ll let them bleed”), and the determined slowness.
“I like to graffiti my house […] There are these walls that look white from one side, but when you walk up the stairs, the inside is all graffiti,” Malik told Billboard earlier this year. The pace of Mind Of Mine is rebellious; in a post-1989 world, every song on a pop album demands the Hit Quality, something that demands a stylish hook and opportunity for a shiny music video with some key token appearances. What Mind Of Mine lacks in populist , it makes up for with experimentation, attitude, and style.
Zayn sings like an angel (Zayngel? I’ll stop now) – that much was expected of every 1D member – and it’s nice to be able to pick up his individual voice among these instrumentals, driven by Malay and the album’s many other competent producers, that help Malik craft a decent blend of contemporary pop, R&B, with inflections ranging from straight rock to his South Asian roots.
The weak links are “PILLOWTALK” and “fOoL fOr YoU,” a lumbering ballad where the instrumental sounds more Josh Groban than JT and the lyrics – another thing Zayn now has more significant control over – don’t always impress.
Still, Malik has millions more pounds and a creative team around him that can fix that over time, and no criticism will change that thousands of copies of this thing have been sold in the time it took you to read this. I don’t do number scores as a rule, but if I did, we could call this four One Direction members out of five.