Review Summary: A new direction.The X Factor
, American Idol
, and the wave of similar reality singing shows seemed to present a golden opportunity for the under-appreciated vocal talents among us. Simply show up, sing your heart out, and get everything you ever wanted: a record deal and devoted worldwide fanbase - in short, the opportunity to quit your day job and show the world what you were always meant to do. The real you
. But as the few lucky enough to make it to the other side of such contests quickly discovered, the music industry was interested in their vocal abilities… and significantly less interested in the “real them”. What followed was neither a boon to the artists themselves, nor listeners - as scores of focus-group tested, committee-written pop records sung by inexperienced, unsuspecting new artists flooded the market. The vast bulk of these albums were quickly forgotten, along with the artists whose names they bore - many of whom lambasted a process that left no room for their own creativity to be given a chance. They were a pretty voice and nice face on the album cover, but nothing more.
Zayn Malik almost didn’t even make it that far. Eliminated from the X Factor
competition before the final round, the then 17-year-old British singer was given a second chance along with four other similar rejects, the five of them lumped together to form One Direction. They shared traits with the show’s many other prepackaged acts, except for one - their phenomenal, and lasting, commercial success. The group became a rare long-term success story, as the five young vocalists traveled the world to a fanbase that ate up their every movement and digital footprint. Even in the early days of the boy band’s popularity, Malik never seemed to quite click, with his R&B-leaning, exotic vocals fighting to stand out amidst the walls of production. Malik was also distinguished by his Pakistani heritage and Muslim faith. The “dark horse” of the group never seemed to get the memo: The group’s image and marketability came first, and music was somewhere down the list - something to be crossed off quickly rather than a key component of the brand.
That’s why it shouldn’t come as much surprise that Zayn Malik has emphasized repeatedly, in the months since his departure, that he is now all
about the music. And Mind of Mine
, his debut as a solo artist, certainly feels labored-over. While the album’s 14 tracks (18 on the deluxe edition; oddly, second single “Like I Would” is among the bonus tracks) cover a fair amount of sonic ground, it rarely feels like Malik is imitating the One Direction formula of trying anything and everything and seeing what sticks. Instead, he attempts to distill and capture the greatness of the R&B music that has always been his passion, and find his own niche inside an already crowded lane. And on the album’s standout moments, his search yields great rewards, as Malik strikes a delicate balance between the alt-R&B moodiness of The Weeknd and Frank Ocean (whose main collaborator Malay produces and co-writes much of Mind of Mine
; his contributions frequently elevate the proceedings), and pop earworms. Soaring ballad “It’s You” is anchored by a gorgeous falsetto hook more reminiscent of Thom Yorke and Jeff Buckley than modern R&B; “Wrong” features excellent back-and-forth between Malik and up-and-comer Kehlani, who delivers an infectious guest verse; and “Befour” deftly mixes soulful vocal inflections with a smooth, tightly constructed beat anchored by a menacing, droning synth. On the latter, Malik sings passionately of being restricted creatively by the pop hit-making machine - a novel concept for a mainstream R&B song. While Malik’s lyricism on much of the album frequently takes a backseat to the overall mood, here his passion for the words shines loud and clear.
While Mind of Mine
’s emphasis and mood and groove can pay dividends on many tracks, a drawback of its subdued approach is that Malik’s powerhouse voice too often fits into the groove rather than pushing to the forefront - on many tracks, he is content to stay in a small portion of his range for most or all of the song, sacrificing showmanship for consistency. While this restraint in service of the bigger picture is admirable, it can lead to stretches of the album blurring together into a mid-tempo slog, particularly in the mid-section of the deluxe edition’s one hour runtime. Casual listeners of many tracks may be mistaken for thinking Malik is an above-average singer rather than a great one, and his most immediate tool for capturing the listener’s attention is gone. That being said, Malik’s main achievement on Mind of Mine
- establishing a distinct sonic lane in the wake of a pop group whose entire mantra was to be indistinct - is no small feat. The album showcases both stunning highs and obvious room for growth. If Malik is able to loosen up more on future work and give both his impressive vocals and sometimes fascinating songwriting tendencies - as showcased on “Befour” - more room to breathe, he could be on to something truly special. For now, he has delivered an enjoyable collection of modern R&B/pop. Its flaws, while evident, are clearly the result of Malik himself, rather than a committee of songwriters or marketing executives. And that might be his greatest achievement of all.