What can you say about a twenty-three year old boy who walks out on the biggest boy band in the world? That he’s finally had enough? That he’s been pushed and shoved by the corporate machine to a place where all he yearns for is to make music that doesn’t “influence” anyone, anymore? That he is ready to be a man?
Unsurprisingly (see album cover), Mind of Mine finds Zayn not a boy, not yet a man, ceasing to influence anyone. It broods, it complains, it sulks, all with desperate urgency. You don’t like it on your first listen. And then you do. Then you’re not so sure anymore. It’s not until you realize you’ve missed the point entirely that you finally get it. Mind of Mine isn’t about you, or me. It’s a room full of smoke only visible to Zayn. He’s here to liberate himself from his past, and like every young celebrity, he’s to do so in a world where tabloids zoom in with gleeful zest to watch him wriggle out of the boyband demographic. Still, listeners are happy to turn a sympathetic ear. Since Zayn’s calling his own shots now, he sings in Urdu with self-indulgent melismatic inflections. He tracks in the woods, in Angeles Forest. He grows his beard and dyes his hair. He AIM-cizes his song titles as an inside joke to himself. He has sex with older women–the kind that wear fragrances with a woody-spicy accord and wrap their lips around cigarettes–and sings about it. Because he can. And we can’t stop him.
Anything you get out of the album as a listener is a bonus. That’s not to say Mind of Mine is awful, by any means. What it lacks in wit, it makes up in production. Zayn glides over the busy flow of plush beats, his songwriting doozy and dispelled. To the dismay of the Directioner: this isn’t a pop/rock album. Though conflict wafts in like perfume, any possible stories concerning the band, about being intellectually and artistically suppressed by a voting bloc, are hidden as vague motifs embedded in songs about girls, left to decode by conspiracy theorists: “This ain’t my scene/ This wasn’t my dream/ It was all yours.” Zayn wants you to know this is an R&B album, and so the focus is laid front and center on his cavalier vocals. And while his co-write credit on the album could mean that he simply turned to producer/songwriter Malay and said: “I want this record to sound like the work you did with Frank Ocean on Channel Orange,” his curation on the album is undeniable.
From the inviting 57 second moody intro track, “Mind of Mindd,” to album closer “She Don’t Love Me,” he’s on the edge, trying to find his way back inside his mind. We’re hooked. We want to voyeuristically see Zayn try to rewire his mind, to reinvent his style. His lead-off single, “Pillowtalk,” which shrugs off pissing off neighbors, is exemplary of the conventionally idgaf aesthetic of the album. His voice continues to dart in and out of a dense thicket of production, like a leather clad angel, on the moody “It’s You.” With its slinky “she got, she got, she got” trifecta, it aspires to breathe a new life into Channel Orange, only it’s much too vague, not as bold. “I won’t cover the scar/ I’ll let it be/ So my silence won’t be mistaken for believing.” It could be about anything.
The atmospheric “Befour” arises out of stoned silences and inbred jadedness. Zayn is so exhausted from repeating the same story over and over again that he refuses to speak in anything other than cliches: “Now, I’m gonna stay in my zone/ I’m tired of picking that bone/ And I can’t be bothered to fight it no more, no!” Excessively catchy “She” finds Zayn singing about his reimagined Girl Almighty, who is still the life of the party except now she puts her spirit in a nightcap.
The second half of the album is inconsistent, except “Fool For You,” and begins to fall off after the intermission. The heavily accented Urdu “Flower,” is commendable, offering cultural insight and a subtle duality juxtaposing ghazal with floral guitar strings. “Rear View,” which tries to recreate the effortless sheen of Channel Orange, is a precursor to the competent but ditzy tracks about getting naked and exploring “inner secrets” and finding life “between shots and getting high.” “Wrong” is incredibly forgettable with its bleary vocals, its unimpressive feature makes you wish for a different guest artist. “Lucodaze” is a highly skippable track, only worth listening to for its electric plumage into tabloidery: “You don’t even wanna know about the things I hear/ Quick fix, headlines shine bright, you’re the fuckin’ deal/ I’m just wishing it’s ambition that got you/ Your position/ You’ll be fishing for far too long/ You’re the bad guy in this movie.” It ends with a mock-adult double entendre a la the new Gwen album, “When I told you I was over you, or were you under me?”
A predictable piano line can have you mistaking “Fool For You” for a cheesy ballad but it soars into a big, redeeming chorus, hitting all the big money notes. “Like I Would” is interesting only for a curious Phil Collins moment in the chorus, where the “OH” sounds like it’s adopted from “Another Day In Paradise.” This might not be anything more than a notable coincidence, considering the last thing Zayn would’ve wanted is to sound like Phil Collins.
Mind of Mine isn’t a street club anthem. But if you take the tracks for what they are–radio-friendly, just-vague-enough disses dressed as songs about love–we may better understand where Zayn’s coming from, and where he’s headed. The question however remains: how liberated are you if you break the fetters of talent managers and music moguls only to cuff yourself to shopworn record producers? But none of it matters: frenzied fans feasting on celebrity are still going to sing songs of Zayn’s freedom.