Despite his protests of ignorance, the timing of Zayn Malik’s debut solo album, Mind of Mine, feels pretty significant.
It comes out a year ago to the day after he released a statement confirming he’d left One Direction, the juggernaut, X Factor-created boyband that had propelled him from a slightly bored-looking teenager to a slightly bored-looking, incredibly wealthy adult. After leaving the group, he explained that he wanted to be “a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight”. Months after a very public spat with producer Naughty Boy, signing a solo deal with RCA Records and starting a relationship with model and reality TV star Gigi Hadid after an acrimonious split with his pop star fiancé Perrie Edwards, however, it appears he simply got bored of being normal.
Set among the perma-smiling, chino-sporting lineup of One Direction, there was always something oddly compelling about Malik’s indifference. Rarely the most vocal in interviews or the most animated onstage (his moves largely boiled down to fiddling with his ear piece and pouting), his allure came from seemingly doing nothing at all. It was like he was chiselled from marble; blank but intriguing. While the smart money went on Harry Styles to forge a solo career, Malik took on the Robbie Williams role, a twinkly-eyed loose cannon who loves his mum but who couldn’t keep himself out of the tabloids (weed smoking, allegations of affairs, terrible tattoos). If various interviews are to be believed, he has barely spoken to his former bandmates since.
It’s this outsider status – along with his hasty derision for his old band’s music – that makes his transition from Mumfordesque ballads and pepped-up pop anthems to weed-fuelled downbeat sex jams on Mind of Mine feel like less of a stretch than if Niall Horan had done it. The importance of getting the first single right means recent UK and US No 1 Pillowtalk is basically a checklist of heavy-handed, I’m-a-man-not-a-boy rebellion. So there’s swearing (“fucking and fighting” to “piss off the neighbours”), alongside that Weeknd-esque trope of conflating pain and pleasure into one woozy, weed-filled 4am tryst. There’s also lashings of overwrought guitar, as though rock’n’roll still signals danger.
Thankfully, Malik settles into a less ham-fisted groove as the album unfolds (although its title and artwork both suggest he hasn’t completely mastered subtlety yet). The excellent first half showcases his Frank Oceanesque falsetto on the sad-eyed, organ-drenched It’s You (produced by Channel Orange’s main producer, Malay), and on Befour’s pulsating electro-throb there’s a head-spinning vocal performance you don’t tend to get from a former boyband members, Justin Timberlake aside. Perhaps the album’s highlight is the double whammy of mid-tempo standouts She and Drunk, with the former featuring a fairly cold and distant lyric about Malik offering no solace to someone in need (“She wants somebody to love, to hold her”), while the latter’s percolating emotion finally offers a glimpse behind the cool-guy exterior (“Red eyes, amnesia, I need ya,” he coos).
From the lovely, pastoral intermission Flower (sung in Urdu in recognition of Malik’s Pakistani heritage), the album’s quality dips slightly, the downcast tempo and reverb-heavy finger-click beats becoming vaporous by the time he and Kehlani swap hazily lustful lines on Wrong (weirdly, the excellent, upbeat Like I Would is relegated to the deluxe edition). There’s still time for surprising moments – Fool For You’s Lennon-inspired piano-lead ballad, the lovely Rear View (“It sounds like you need a friend”) and the glitchy Timberlake-isms of the closing TIO – but the meandering Lucozade is a chorus-less mumble, while the slowburn Truth is lost in the second-half fog.
The lasting impression of Mind of Mine, however, is of someone finally making the music they’ve wanted to make for a long time. That the sound he’s chosen – clipped beats, hazy production flourishes, oodles of falsetto as a shortcut for emotional honesty – is basically 2016 writ large may seem bandwagon-jumping, but there’s more than enough good stuff here to suggest it’s been created with love rather than with an eye on ticking boxes. You sense he’s had enough of the latter to last him a lifetime.
This article was written by Michael Cragg, for theguardian.com on Friday 25th March 2016 13.17 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010