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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 October 2018

Album review: Zayn Malik gets serious in his debut Mind of Mine

Mind of Mine is more focused and coherent than most modern pop albums, and it undoubtedly achieves the main goal: to position Zayn Malik as a serious musician.
Mind of Mine by Zayn Malik. Courtesy RCA Records
Mind of Mine by Zayn Malik. Courtesy RCA Records

Zayn Malik

Mind of Mine

(RCA)

3.5 stars

A few months after Zayn Malik’s momentous defection from One Direction last year, the singer fired a heartfelt parting shot. The people controlling the world’s biggest boyband never allowed him to “experiment creatively,” he complained. “I wasn’t 100 per cent behind the music.” Which certainly raised expectations for the solo work; what exactly did Malik want to create? Hip-hop? Art-pop? Something new entirely?

Thankfully Zayn refrained from following the Robbie Williams route – criticising Take That’s creative constraints then rush-releasing a pointless cover of George Michael’s Freedom, which rather deflated the argument – and spent a full year fine-tuning that new sound, while also Twitter-feuding with several former bandmates. His main collaborator now was James ‘Malay’ Ho, who won a Grammy Award for producing the most acclaimed R‘n’B album of recent times, Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE, which augured well.

One nod to channel ORANGE is immediately apparent here: a curious approach to upper-case letters, which dance around the song titles as if Malik thought “Hey, why make these words easy to read? One Direction did that.” The awkward typography is by far the most experimental thing about Mind of Mine, in fact, as this is still very much a pop record. But there are admirable twists.

Malik was always 1D’s most interesting member. British with Pakistani roots, the singer soaked up disparate sounds, from sensual R‘n’B to Eastern spirituals, and now clearly has the clout to set them free. Mind of Mine’s most surprising track is actually the intermission, fLoWer, a yearning Pakistani poem, sung in Urdu, which brings welcome heart to a record otherwise steeped in US-fuelled beats.

Many of those cuts are undeniably cool, though. You can imagine unsuspecting hipsters digging the retro soul-funk of tRuTh, or iT’s YoU’s minimal beats and massive chorus, then being shocked when their Shazam search reveals who the singer is. Aside from fLoWer and some fine falsetto, Malik’s voice is rarely distinctive, but it surfs a sensual, soulful wave throughout. rEaR vieW – as the title suggests – conjures Cliff Martinez’ achingly cool Drive soundtrack, all jagged synths, while the rumbling funk of BeFoUr should set even cynical heads nodding.

For his longer-term fans, there are several anthems with 1D-like hooks, PiLlOwT4lK, fOoL fOr YoU and sHe, although the latter track does end with a tacked-on chopped-up vocal: it seems that any straightforward pop now requires an experimental stop. The lyrics are unlikely to alienate Directioners either, aside from some unnecessary swearing. This record will no doubt be scrutinised for bitter references, but only the break-up song lUcOzAdE contains anything possibly targeted at, say, Louis Tomlinson. “You’re the bad guy in this movie,” Malik sings.

But that’s probably wishful thinking, as this is a love record, a suite of sweet nothings, as Malik woos and whispers and remains inoffensively frisky throughout. Safe-to-sexy may be the classic young-star career path, but it works. Mind of Mine is more focused and coherent than most modern pop albums, and it undoubtedly achieves the main goal: to position Malik as a serious musician. Take that, 1D doubters.

artslife@thenational.ae