It always seemed Harry Styles would have been the first to leave One Direction, but Zayn Malik was never really a good fit to begin with. Quiet and thoughtful, his sense of poise seemed at odds with the laddish banter of his band-mates, and his decision to leave the group was sparked by creative differences. Swapping rock-leaning pop for r&b-leaning pop doesn’t seem like a great stylistic leap, but Mind Of Mine positions ZAYN as a very different prospect from the band he left behind.
He makes for a very convincing r&b fan – specifically, the synthetically modern, experimental-leaning genre cues that constitute alternative r&b, via the likes of Frank Ocean and Miguel. Mind Of Mine swaps sing-along choruses and straightforward songs for an emphasis on mood and texture. The mix of falsetto vocals, lascivious lyrics and foggy electronics all suggest The Weeknd as a major influence, but there’s a sense of obtuseness that points towards abstract figures like FKA Twigs. That’s not to say Mind Of Mine is wilfully difficult or dark at all – there are pop moments like ‘Before’ and ‘Lucozade’, throbbing disco throwbacks that draw on the same palette as recent hits by Taylor Swift and Jason Derulo, while ‘She’ is a particularly melodically-satisfying retro workout.
Despite a few stand-out tracks, Mind Of Mine is ultimately a slog to get through. At forty-five minutes, the pace barely changes. The production is technically impressive, but the unadventurous song-writing ranges from mid-tempo love jams to slow-tempo love jams, doing no favours to how it sounds. But it’s ZAYN who’s the real villain here: he might draw on the right influences to make an on-trend album, but he has no sense of delivery. He can hit the notes, but lacks any sense of dynamic. The best contemporary r&b comes from figures who know how to create drama or bring personality, using the voice as an instrument of nuance and range – think The-Dream at his most majestic, Justin Timberlake at his most lovelorn, even Robin Thicke at his most lecherous. ZAYN brings nothing like that to his music: Mind Of Mine feels like a pastiche of current styles, feeble by his peers’ standards. It’s a worrying sign when a talent such as Kehlani can guest and seem overwhelmed by the surrounding mediocrity, as on ‘Wrong’, where Zayn’s voice turns into a notably unpleasant slush of Auto-tune and echo.
It’s not awful – it’s certainly better than anyone would expect a solo One Direction album to be, including their fans. But it just isn’t as good as it needs to be. There are moments of promise: ‘Truth’ flutters uneasily over a jangling guitar loop that feels almost indie in an unselfconscious way; ‘Intermission: Flower’ is an Urdu-sung sketch that sits texturally between Jeff Buckley and Mazzy Star. They’re the album’s bravest moments and they’re also the album’s best. Mind Of Mine positions itself as edgy, but it’s too safe to succeed on the terms it defines itself by. It shows ZAYN doesn’t quite have the X Factor on his own – but we already learned that, years ago.