A member of a hugely successful pop group embarking on a solo career is an inherently risky venture. Sometimes it can lead to an artist even eclipsing their former bandmates, as with Justin Timberlake’s Justified, but it can also lead to nowhere, and stall the careers of everyone involved, like with Nick Jonas’ Who I Am. Mind of Mine sees ZAYN (Zayn Malik) almost entirely abandon the pop-rock style of his former band – One Direction – in pursuit of a mature, smooth, alternative R&B sound, and he by-and-large succeeds.
If any member of One Direction was going to embark on a solo career, it makes sense that it be Malik. It’s widely accepted that he was the strongest singer of the group, and Malik was always portrayed as the “Bradford Bad Boy”, an image he fashions into his new musical style, with help of Malay, producer of Big Boi and Frank Ocean. Mind of Mine explores a lot of sonic territory that other R&B acts have developed in recent years, whilst filtering the fairly standard subject matter through Malik’s unique perspective.
After a vaguely M83-esque opening track – MiNd Of MiNdd (Intro) – the album jumps between influences on a track-by-track basis, whilst retaining a sense of artistic coherence. Lead single PILLOWTALK is the most traditional-pop song here, with Malik belting the chorus in his trademark tenor voice, imbuing the talk of sex and passion with a kind of theatricality. BeFoUr recalls the smooth vocal mannerisms of Miguel, surrounding Malik with an array of thin synthesisers and funky percussion. sHe sees Malik getting close to the territory of The Weeknd, particularly In The Night, and although sHe is a quieter, more subtle track, it has the same sort of propulsive synth chords that make that songs so addictive. fOoL fOr YoU is a piano ballad that actually sounds fairly similar to some late-period Beatles songs, or John Lennon’s solo work. It’s the kind of big, brash ballad that many pop artists try and fail to get right, but Malik nails it.
Malik’s subject matter largely sticks to standard R&B tropes (sex, drinking, love, etc.), but he manages to put his own spin on it, for the most part. Where the most successful contemporary artists tend to employ a facade of sociopathy and lecherousness (like the Weeknd), Malick follows the lead of fellow Malay-produced act Frank Ocean, and writes from a position of earnestness. On sHe, Malik sings about a former lover, reminiscing about their time together – “she puts her mouth round the cigarette / I put it out ‘cause she likes that”. It’s telling that he focuses on what “she” wants, as opposed to merely glamourising selfishness. TiO is predominantly a song about a lover stripping for Malik, but he opens the chorus with the lines – “I just wanna watch you when you take it off / take off all your makeup, baby take it off” before progressing to her also taking off her clothes. It’s the details like this that show Malik actually has an interest in humanising his muses, which is a refreshing change from the norm.
The biggest flaw with the album is, simply put, the length. At 18 songs in the Deluxe version, the album stretches to an hour long, and becomes fairly sonically repetitive in the second half. Each of the tracks is individually fantastic, and none of them particularly stand out as filler (except perhaps lUcOzAdE), but taken as a whole, they drag on, with too many tracks having too slow a tempo. A few extra upbeat songs in the vein of LIKE I WOULD would not have gone astray, along with cutting a few others.
However, in spite of its flawed pacing, Mind of Mine is an excellent debut album from Malik, falling much closer to Justified in terms of success. He has shot far ahead of his former bandmates in terms of maturity, and displays an impressive grasp of R&B styles, as well as a unique artistic voice. With this album, Malik has instantly become one of the most exciting artists working in pop music, and where he goes next will be a joy to see.