the first to go solo is the first to struggle
In May of 2014, a video leaked online of One Direction bandmates Louis Tomlinson and Zayn Malik riding in their tour bus and—gasp!—smoking marijuana. Besides some over-dramatic headlines, a flurry of apologetic tweets, and a couple meltdowns from diehard fans whose beloved faves were suddenly problematic, nothing really noteworthy followed. The only damage done was that the implied was finally undeniable: Behind the family-friendly mask of boy-band-hood, Zayn and Louis were, in fact, 20-something-year-old dudes. They made the same bad decisions typical of 20-something-year-old dudes, for better or for worse.
Much has happened since then, and the boys’ coming-of-age saga is reaching its final stages. Louis has become a father. The band has officially gone “on hiatus” (read: disbanded), and their farewell single “History” has long left the radio. And at the climax of this bildungsroman, there’s Zayn: breaking up with long-term fiancée Perrie Edwards of Little Mix, ditching One Direction in the middle of their tour, and finally releasing his debut album, “Mind of Mine.” Zayn’s time as a solo artist lies in stark contrast to his time with One Direction; in an interview with Billboard earlier this year he talked openly about smoking sativa, calling it “creative weed.” He said it unapologetically. After all, he’s a 23-year-old man—who cares?
“Mind of Mine” is an album best viewed as another entry in a list of coming-of-age albums, crafted in that awkward time period between trying to have fun as a teenage pop idol and trying to be taken seriously as an adult. Notable recent entries include Justin Bieber’s “Purpose” and Nick Jonas’ self-titled album, both released in the last two years, although the most apt comparison for Zayn, in terms of career trajectories, would be to Justin Timberlake’s “Justified,” released in 2006 after the termination of N*SYNC. Albums of this nature deal with adult-ish tropes (heartbreak, disillusionment, sex) and historically serve as excellent opportunities for reinventions as mature artists.
The problem with “Mind of Mine” lies, then, in Zayn’s strain to be taken seriously as a grown-up artist and shed his boy-band image. This is because, more often than not, he oversteps into self-parody. The album’s lead single “PILLOWTALK” is a dirty love song laid over a combination of trap and alternative R&B, and while the production is satisfyingly gritty and atmospheric, the lyrics aren’t much more than combinations of antonyms that conveniently rhyme. They give the semblance of conflict, but do little more. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing—not much is expected by way of pop lyricism. But for all of his effort to be edgy and artistic (see: the music video, which is a hallucinogenic orgy of “artsy” ideas and bad execution), the surprisingly vanilla nature of the song belies the image he’s trying his best to build. It’s not that different from his One Direction stuff, in the sense that it’s an inoffensive pop song that’s instantly accessible and far from thought-provoking.
Songs like “BoRdErZ” and “TiO,” the latter of which is an acronym of “take it off” and not about Spanish uncles, saunter into somewhat creepy territory as Zayn fawns over the glory of the female body. Some lines are awkwardly amusing; “I’ll get her wetter than ever,” he boasts on “wRoNg.” The song is a collaboration with Kehlani, who follows up with some non sequiturs: “I go out of my way to treat you / But I can’t be a teacher / Because I’m a problem with problems.” The titles of many of the other songs are perhaps the best representation of Zayn’s misplaced over-ambition. They’re bizarrely capitalized, as if written by a middle schooler pRetEnDiNg tO bE dRuNk oN tHe iNtErNet. (The fact that there’s actually a song titled “dRuNk” does not help his cause.) Edgy? I mean, sure. Mature? Definitely not.
The best quality of the album is Zayn’s fantastic voice, and the songs that manage to employ it well tend to be the album’s strongest. “PILLOWTALK” is one of them, and promo single “LIKE I WOULD” is prime for the clubs, with his strong timbre commanding the dance floor. The lush intermission “fLoWeR,” sung entirely in Urdu, similarly frames his voice beautifully. Yet the messy production of other songs frustratingly distracts from his vocals, like the fuzzy nothingness of “tRuTh” or the drab “lUcOzAdE.” On the opposite side of things, “fOoL fOr YoU” so relishes in Zayn’s voice that the instrumental backs off, and he ends up sounding like a discount Michael Bublé.
“Mind of Mine” is a middling album that so desperately wants to be something more. It functions well as a showcase for Zayn’s voice, but falls short of accomplishing much else, and in an industry filled with pop powerhouses who occupy similar roles on the radio—the aforementioned Jonas and Bieber come to mind—Zayn may find trouble in securing his niche in the world of pop. To his credit, the greatest triumph of “Mind of Mine” is that it largely succeeds in dissociating his current act from his past stint with One Direction. The album’s greatest failure, however, is that it leaves Zayn without much direction at all.