“PILLOWTALK”, the first solo single from One Direction defector Zayn Malik (now mononymously known as Zayn), was one of the more disheartening recent pop debuts. It didn’t come out long after Justin Bieber’s Purpose, and it seemed as if Zayn’s producers were following that album’s formula. It was tough, sexual non-teen pop, seemingly designed to scrub away any vestiges of his prior boyband career. Luckily, the template for Zayn’s solo debut Mind Of Mine isn't Purpose but Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. It’s all there. Soaring falsettos; short songs that end abruptly; a glut of productions from Channel Orange maestro Malay; a song that sounds exactly like Channel Orange’s “Sweet Life” (“Rearview”), and this lyric from “Truth”, “Front seat, new view.” Weird Al couldn’t have nailed Ocean’s style better than those four words.
This is appropriate, since all Zayn’s wanted this whole time was to be an R&B singer. Let’s not forget that before Simon Cowell bunched him together in One Direction with four other misfits, he auditioned for the X Factor as a solo R&B artist, singing “Let Me Love You” by Mario. Is Mind Of Mine mature? Hardly; these are the caviar dreams of the kid on the cover, inspired by the sheer cool of all those singers he heard on his dad’s stereo. In a sense, Mind Of Mine serves as an alternate-universe prequel to Zayn’s One Direction career. It’s the record that he might have made had he risen to the top rounds as a solo act. Except, of course, Channel Orange came out after that happened, so that album probably would have sounded more like Trey Songz.
Mind Of Mine’s strengths lie in how clearly and thoroughly it expresses its intent. This isn’t a star vehicle, nor a hit vehicle. It’s a flag planted firmly in the world of R&B. Not even pop R&B: just R&B. There are few contemporary radio trends here—no trap drums, no vocal-sample hooks, no deep-house molly-movers. Rather, Mind Of Mine is built around jazzy chords, eerie textures, and mountains of reverb. There’s nothing Timbaland-interesting, but aside from “Pillowtalk” and the closing “Tio” (both produced by MYKL, whose grungy beats would work better with someone like Bieber or, say, Kelly Clarkson), nothing here sounds generic. Above it all, Zayn soars with the freedom of someone finally given the chance to let loose. There are no heart-stopping vocal performances here, but he still sounds like he’s having a grand old time in the studio.
But as an R&B album, taken on its own terms, Mind Of Mine leaves a lot to be desired. For one, it’s almost completely hookless. Secondly, the lyrics fall into one of the most common traps of pop lyricism: vagueness. The sex songs aren’t particularly sexy, the party songs don’t sound particularly party-ready, and the love songs won’t leave you swooning with the glow of romance. Mind Of Mine is a better whole than a collection of songs, and the standouts tend to be the shorter, less unambitious ditties (the theatrical “It’s You”; the gut-punch party jam “She”). I came out of Mind Of Mine with pretty solid ideas of what these songs sounded like but few recollections of lyrics or choruses. Mind Of Mine is great when it’s on, but it doesn’t linger much.
I suspect Zayn had a lot more creative control on this record than most pop stars are afforded, and it’s understandable he would resist any attempts to temper his vision after his experience in One Direction. “If I would sing a hook or a verse slightly R&B, or slightly myself, it would always be recorded 50 times until there was a straight version that was pop,” he explained to The Fader last November of his experiences in the studio with 1D. But I believe what Zayn really needs is a partner who understands him: a producer or songwriter who understands his R&B dreams and can write him songs with enough pathos—and enough hooks–to help them come true. B MINUS