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Zayn Malik’s #RealMusic Is Real Good: ‘Mind of Mine’ Album Review

Zayn Malik

Every mention of Zayn Malik‘s debut solo album Mind of Mine will begin with a lengthy history lesson you’ve heard countless times before, so we might as well get it out of the way, too: Zayn — a former fifth of Simon Cowell’s lucrative invention, One Direction — quit the group mid-tour a year ago and without apology, choosing his own musical truth over immeasurable monetary compensation.

The fallout was immense: The volatile particulars involved — a cheating scandal, unsubstantiated rumors of substance abuse (rife with racist undertones), an endlessly hectic schedule — came together to combust in a fiery blaze. For a while thereafter, it seemed everything Zayn touched with his molten lava hands reeked of burnt ash, such was the volcanic eruption he left in his wake.

“No hard feelings,” all parties claimed, but it wasn’t long before Twitter revealed those words to be nothing more than a false, press-fed cordiality. Though Zayn has since shared pleasantries with member Liam Payne, no olive branch has been extended otherwise, at least not on One Direction’s end. Zayn had to know that was coming, right? He threw a colossal wrench into an already overworked machine with (so the rumors say) little to no warning.

But this backstory’s now a footnote in Zayn’s present day. After a quiet few months he picked up the pace, dropping a few things in the process: His former bandmates, his last name, and his consonants.

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Lead single “Pillowtalk” is a sleek, shiny record, produced to high-heaven and littered with f-bombs and innuendo.

Yes, swear words and sex go hand-in-hand when formerly squeaky-clean pop outfits force maturity, a move that’s typically flooded with embarrassment, the stench oozing off them in droves. But Mind of Mine feels like an organic progression, like a further extension of #RealMusic maker Zayn — like these songs really were ruminating deep inside his big, beautiful skull for ten years.

At its heart, Mind of Mine is a pop album.

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Zayn names Frank Ocean as one of his main influences, and he went so far as to seek out Channel Orange producer Malay to help cultivate this collection. But if you were under the impression Mind of Mine would be all esoteric, experimental R&B you’d be ignoring the past five years of Zayn’s life. Those bubblegum 1D years have yet to unroot themselves completely, if ever they wind up leaving him at all.

The album is all the better for it. Zayn has a real knack for a catchy hook, a sense for what sells. “sHe,” with its whirling, grooving synths, deserves a place on heavy radio rotation. “BeFour,” meanwhile, is a pulsating electro-R&B track, all smokey vocals and methodical rhythms. “LIKE I WOULD” is an infectious, uptempo Weeknd rip, teeming with gospel vocals and percolating synths.

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There are slow-burns too: “Drunk” is all etherial, flourishing falsettos and a tempered, subtle baseline, woven intricately throughout the track as soft drums trickle down over its edge. “iT’s YoU” is a hazy, mournful ode to lost love. And the album’s sole guest feature comes in the form of “Wrong,” a scintillating duet with rising R&B singer Kehlani. Their vocals wrap around each other seamlessly, making for an easy, sensual slow-jam.

The lyrics aren’t so important on Mind of Mine, due in part to their sheer incoherence. It seems Zayn got ahold of some marbles, shoved them in his mouth and sung around them, preferring style over substance when it comes to enunciation.

Aside from his bizarre decision to name a track after a sports drink (“Lucozade”), piano ballad “Fool For You” is the album’s sole outlier, and it serves as further proof that nothing in this world exists within a vacuum. A soulful, mid-tempo record, Zayn allows his vocal runs free reign. Equal parts Beatles and Elton John, it’s a track that would be better suited for (brace yourself!) One Direction’s latest soft-rock release Made in the A.M. (Zayn wouldn’t know this, of course. He hasn’t heard it.)

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Mind of Mine‘s most pleasant surprise comes a little less than halfway in, on an elegant musical interlude titled “Flower.” Sung entirely in Urdu, Zayn’s vocals are layered over a delicate, folk-inspired guitar track. It feels like an exhalation or an unraveling, as though all the tension built up over his four year tenure as a mere sum of One Direction’s manufactured parts has finally found a suitable vessel for release.

Zayn may have outraged a hefty portion of 1D fans when it appeared he’d misguidedly bought into his own hype, but Mind of Mine is solid evidence it won’t be long before the rest of the music world follows suit.

Your move, Harry.

Zayn Rating

Zayn Malik’s Best Vocals

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Next: Zayn Malik Bares His Soul for 'Complex' Cover Story

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