How does a millennial ex-boy bander turned R&B soul searcher define himself? Good question.
In his recent NME interview, it is stated that 23-year-old Zayn Malik often “struggles to find the words to say what he’s got to say”. This remark was made in relation to his education and, initially, seemed a little obtuse. Having listened to Malik’s debut album Mind of Mine for the past few hours, however, it might, in fact, be quite true. Zayn Malik knows he has something to say, he just hasn’t figured out what it is and how to say it.
This seems, however, to be something Malik is actually trying to work in his favour, or at least make the imperfect act of stumbling for the right words a key aspect of his artistic personality. What does it mean to know how you feel but words can't describe what you’re feeling? How does it work into his boy band beginnings that the debut album of a highly controlled artist is all about not knowing how to properly express himself now that he has the space to do so? This self-aware confusion, and the frustration that results, is evident all over Malik’s dreamlike debut. Even the title gets to the point fairly well without really describing much – a journey into the murky mindset of the type of pop artist most feel compelled to deliberately ignore. Zayn does not want you to ignore him. The fact that he has something on his mind, is, to him, the reason you should listen at all. If someone wants to speak, the least you can do is listen, right? What you do after that, he explains, is up to you: “So say what you wanna say..."
At least you heard him out.
It’s interesting sifting through the early stages of Zayn’s Mind of Mine lyrics page on Genius because, despite Zayn having plenty to say, nobody can understand a word he’s saying. At times his enunciation rivals Ariana Grande’s worst mumblings, and everyone appears to be hearing something different. Maybe this is the point, though. Whatever “Zayn” is to you, you’ll hear it on here. You see a highly sexualised, new Usher/Chris Brown type figure? That persona is evident on Drunk, She, Pillowtalk, Wrong and TiO. You see Zayn as the broody, moody, unpredictable angsty rebel? Truth, BeFour, Rear View are here for you. You see Zayn as a bonafide superstar, a talent unlike any other in pop right now, shedding the restraints of a formulaic manufactured pop band? Look no further than Blue, It’s You, Borders and Fool For You. It’s all there. Whatever facet of Zayn you’ve come to recognise as being “the real Zayn” is on display.
So which one is the real Zayn?
All of them, of course.
This is another point Malik has been trying to make in his own way since exactly one year ago today when he declared his time in boy band no man’s land was done, and announced his dream job “didn’t feel real anymore”. Every person is 3D, with real thoughts, feelings, problems, strengths, weaknesses. Nobody is a cardboard cutout. Evil music industry managers of boy bands do their darnedest to make that a reality, however, and Zayn is unique in that he is not just desperate to be away from it all, he’s also desperate to prove The Machine wrong. A former boy bander can have thoughts, deep thoughts, stoner thoughts even, that don’t have to make sense, sexual thoughts that don’t have to be diffused with cheesy metaphors. He thinks, he feels (“Right now I’m so emotional”) and he deliberately overdoses on life’s pleasurable vices – drugs, drink, dames - just to let us know what that experience felt like. "I found my life in between shots and getting high", he opens with on bonus track Bright. It would be unsettling if he didn't sound so alive.
If you were looking for One Direction diss tracks to fuel your anti-pop hipster rage, you’ll likely leave Mind Of Mine feeling teased and unsatisfied. It’s not that he doesn’t address his former bandmates, he totally does. Just not in the “I hate you so much right now aaahhh” manner some probably hope for. In fact, the obvious “about them” songs sting in that they read like someone who knew full well they had something good, even great, going. But a slight shift in perspective exposed the ugliness behind it all and Zayn could never really believe in what they had the same as before he knew...whatever it is he knows now. Unlike the songs where he struggles to explain, on Mind of Mine’s 1d songs, he is not struggling at all, he simply does not want to tell you. Truth gets to the point without saying a word – "YES, I LEFT, FOR GOOD REASON TOO", it screams – but it also vows gracefully, through gritted teeth, not to “name names” and simply let the cruel passage of time do its job. Whether that means watching his former band rot miserably in his shadow or whether he hopes they too will come through to a new awareness the way he apparently did, it’s clear – he outgrew the role designated for him and he knows it.
Other highlights are the almost-first-single BeFour, with its tense contemplation of mistakes made and damage done, Zayn’s death defying falsetto injects a sudden intensity into the final chorus. Drunk is an airy ode to intoxicating sex-filled summer nights. There’s artistic flair on tracks like Intermission: Flower, sung entirely in Urdu, and Blue, which uses Bach’s Cello Suite No 1 in G Minor as background music. Yes, you read that right. A former member of One Direction – that boy band you’ve been dismissing since 2010 - put an entirely non-English song and a song sampling a classic composer on his debut album. Zayn might be hard to get a read on sometimes, but his ambition is wholly evident.
There’s plenty of radio friendly material too. Wrong will please Rihanna fans, it’s a cold, calculated male counterpart to Anti’s harshest track – and next single – Needed Me. Zayn likes sex almost as much as Ms Fenty and neither are too taken with the idea of having, like, feelings for the person currently sharing their bed. What gives Zayn (and Rihanna) edge is the balancing act of having thoughts and opinions to share, but disconnecting from it all just before things get too soppy. On one particular track, however, Lucozade, Zayn appears to be too intoxicated (or angry) to put the brakes on and unleashes four minutes of pure fury, confusion, pain and vulnerability until the track abruptly cuts off mid sentence, as if he suddenly realised he was still recording. The insight is fascinating, though. The discomfort as the song just keeps pouring out of him is palpable and you’re left wanting more when it screeches to a halt. Mind Of Mine keeps things vague, alludes to situations but spells nothing out, uses metaphors to refer to 3 different things at once and blurs all sorts of lines, so the stark honesty of Lucozade stands out.
Overall, Mind of Mine won’t be for everyone. The One Direction crowd looking for stadium-ready choruses and classic rock callbacks won’t find a single trace of the band that made Zayn famous. The R&B crowd looking for smooth hooks and “grind on me” jams might find a few tracks to throw on a playlist. It’s the alt-pop crowd that will probably warm to this album the most, the ones often drawn to the obscure track 13 of any huge pop release. A bizarre combination of Wiz Khalifa and Sam Smith, with a dash of Nick Jonas and Justin Timberlake, Zayn is carving out a confusingly compelling name for himself.
If his ambition remains at the forefront of his creative decisions, he might just end up in a league of his own.