If you need proof that no life skill is more valuable than knowing exactly when to leave a party, look no further than Zayn Malik. Though his work as one-fifth of boy-band superpower One Direction left him at best a distant second to de facto frontman Harry Styles in terms of mainstream visibility, by splitting from the group in 2015 — just an album before they were likely to split anyway — he was able to position himself as the member with the biggest head start to achieving an equally successful solo career. An equally well-timed FADER cover story cast him as a fringe-friendly artist with too much on his mind for 1D, and a triumphant debut single trumpeted his solo arrival, greeted with a reception that not even his world-conquering former group had ever managed.
It’s enough to give you unreasonable expectations for Mind of Mine, Malik’s full-length debut as the mononymic, monolithic entity ZAYN. And undoubtedly, the thing arrives like a blockbuster. After a brief intro, “PILLOWTALK” leads the set, and as a chart-slaying entrance it makes total sense: A scraping, soaring production that sounds like the photo-negative inverse — in this case, maybe the photo-positive — of the Weeknd’s “The Hills,” its lust colored by joy rather than loathing, its struggle for intimacy, not power. The vampiric singer may be the au courant 2016 touchstone, but Malik sounds here, and throughout Mind, like a more obvious acolyte of Miguel’s beckoning sensuality than Abel Tesfaye’s hollowed sinfulness — though that’s liable to leave you annoyed that the far richer “Coffee” wasn’t a tenth as popular as ZAYN’s opening salvo.
Sonically, you won’t find many pop albums in 2016 more immaculately conceived than this. Malay, the undersung co-producer of much of Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE, is a revelation here, serving up most of the LP’s highlights: the lightly quaking Beach House gauze of “iT’s YoU,” the bleating synths and night-drive drama of “BeFoUr,” and the molasses-entrenched wiggle of “BoRdErSz” all included. The album never sounds less than great, and Malik’s voice is lithe and adaptable enough to be equally convincing while floating like a paper airplane above the tremors of “iT’s YoU” or shouting the exultant chorus of “PILLOWTALK” like Patrick Stump halfway through the best orgasm of his life.
What ZAYN can’t do, though, is give us much reason to care about that Mind of His. His songs get to where they need to go, but they’re lacking in narrative, specificity… purpose, if you will. There’s no reason why “BeFoUr” — with a tension more palpable and cinematic than anything on Beauty Behind the Madness, and a narrative hook of maybe being about Malik’s old 1D mates — shouldn’t be one of the most vivid pop songs of the year, his “Cry Me a River” or even his “How Do You Sleep?” But it’s muddled by Zayn’s warbled vocals and thematically inconsistent lyrics, providing no road map to draw a coherent journey from his “I don’t drink to get drunk / I feel all the right funk” opening gambit to the “Say what you want / Shame is you won’t say that to my face” pre-chorus or “I’ve done this before / But not like this” refrain.
Similarly, his sex ballads may not skimp on the bad words, but they’re precious short on detail — the kind of too-intimate facts that make songs about f**king feel truly filthy. Even more discouragingly, they have virtually no sense of subject: If they’re being sung to an actual person, good luck describing anything about them to a police sketch artist. You might not have liked the patronizing ways in which One Direction mansplained your beauty to you, or the uncomfortable way they excused you for those little things that made you you (for better or worse), but at least it felt like they were paying attention. When ZAYN promises “iT’s YoU”… Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.
The most affecting song on the album might be the sub-two-minute “INTERMISSION: fLoWer,” in which his reverb-soaked pleas in Urdu to “Give me your heart” over acoustic picking makes him sound closer to Jim James than Justin Timberlake. Informed by his Pakistani heritage — his father is a native speaker of the language — it’s the song that suggests there’s more personality and creativity to Malik as an artist than the bland PG-13-pushing-R lothario he’s playing at on Mind of Mine. Pop stars are ultimately best defined by their singularity, which is why so many of the greatest ones go by just one immediately recognizable name. ZAYN’s got the latter part down,s.