“Open up and see what’s inside of my mind.” So suggests Zayn Malik in the introduction to his debut offering Mind Of Mine, anticipating what a curious public wants from a mega-celebrity who walked away from a mega-boyband (One Direction, in case you’re none the wiser). Now freer to walk his own path, it’s particularly on the nose of him to invite his audience into his mind to poke around, and the result is an album that’s an expansive but cogent head trip. A genre-blending bedroom confessional with lofty influences could point towards youthful arrogance – ballad Fool For You was reportedly inspired by John Lennon – but thankfully nothing sounds out of place or overambitious, and there’s no sense of a pick-‘n’-mix frenzy following a restricted boyband diet.
There is a sense of emancipation from that mould, however, with lengths taken to assert that this is the real, raw Zayn. Some will question whether this is a boyband graduate over-egging the filth to gain an edge, but it seems remiss to wince at this overt sexuality or brush it off as posed in an age where The Weeknd is a viable pop star with an Oscar nomination. Take, too, the recent example of k-poppers SHINee‘s Taemin on his solo debut – both Press It and Mind Of Mine suggest solo bids allow for greater sexual and romantic intimacy, and the escalation from puppy-eyed naivete to bedroom-eyed lust seems more inevitable when you think of it as taking one of five suitors home for “coffee.”
While the album tends towards a more knowingly adult persona akin to The Weeknd, it might be more prudent to liken it to Tinashe‘s Aquarius – a weed- and sex-driven odyssey that balances plaintive r’n’b with bursts of more marketable pop. In that vein, the throbbing mid-tempo r’n’b of She is an early standout, offering smooth, hazy sensuality and a seamless segue into Drunk that highlights the album’s thoughtful presentation as well as the recurring element of emotionally labile intoxicated love. Wrong, featuring rising star Kehlani, is a Tesfayesque slice of dirt (“I get her wetter than ever”) that straddles an R rating more ably than lead single Pillowtalk, its chorus coming in strained thrusts. It leans towards mimicry as Malik finds his footing, but it’s notably the only song to feature a guest turn on a record that consequentially sees him more exposed and centre stage than ever.
There’s a truthfulness to the album’s downtime, comprised of the many chilled-out moments between the flourishes of singles material. Take Intermission: Flower, an Urdu qawwali building to poetic, meditative bliss that sees shades of sedate Goldfrapp. It exemplifies Mind Of Mine’s modus operandi (experimentation, honesty, passion), in a prescient move challenging what a British heart-throb can or should be, suggesting an artist ready to reject some of the pop monoculture that might previously have whitewashed him. This potent proof that Malik is as happy to foreground his heritage as he is his carnality is key to the album’s intimate nature – if his time in One Direction was often about grand gestures and hit more highs with singalong stadium pop, his solo work is about interior worlds, small spaces, closeness.
Accordingly, the second half dips into more laid back introspection, and by not laying it on thick Bordersz is perhaps the sexiest thing here. Closer TIO brings some welcome heft by returning to rough play, pounding beats and stripteases, and it’s followed by bonus tracks that easily stand up to everything else here, including exhilarating breakup banger Like I Would, wistful funk dalliance She Don’t Love Me, and the Disclosure-aping Bright. By the time the hour is up, Malik’s versatility and urge to explore are firmly established. For all that it wears its influences on its tattoo sleeve, this is unquestionably the work of a Bradford boy with a bottle of pink Lucozade, a pack of Rizlas, and a mesmerising x factor. As a result, Malik allays concerns that he could be lost in the shuffle between today’s Miguels and Frank Oceans and forges his own path. Soulful, sexy and captivating, Mind Of Mine hints at the flexibility, focus and character required of the brightest solo stars.