Has Zayn Malik’s Departure From the One Direction Hit Factory Paid Off?

With 'Mind of Mine', the former One Direction star has produced a surprisingly mature debut solo album.

|
Mar 29 2016, 12:03am

Image: RCA Records

If you were a devoted fan, Zayn Malik’s leaving One Direction was almost mythological. But after three generations of modern boy bands, his story seems familiar. Following several breathless years of dizzying highs, the household-name heartthrob quits in dramatic fashion. Leaving his group’s hyper-engineered, white bread teen, pop behind, he unveils a new, overtly sexual image, with a modern R&B sound.

But for Zayn, it isn’t exactly a career move - One Direction are such a commercial juggernaut that anything else is a guaranteed step down. He won’t be headlining arenas of screaming teens for some time yet.

Mind of Mine, his solo debut, arrives exactly a year to the day of his leaving. He’s spent that time being “a normal 22-year-old“, writing his own material for the first time, working with Frank Ocean producer Malay. Is Zayn just breaking out of One Direction? Or is he breaking new ground for R&B, too?

One Direction’s songs are designed for arena-sized singalongs, but they feel like they’re being sung directly to you – that is you’re in the target demographic. But it there’s one thing Zayn’s retained from his days in One Direction, it’s that doe-eyed, you can trust me earnestness.

Zayn sings “Pillowtalk” with total sincerity, as if he’s the first twentysomething to ever fall in love. He never directly addresses his ex-fiancée, Perrie Edwards of Little Mix fame, on Mind of Mine. But he casts Gigi Hadid, his current model girlfriend, opposite him in the video, in what amounts to a very public subtweet - like an Instagram post declaring your new flame, blown up for an audience of millions.

In their individual shots, Zayn and Hadid are fragile, teary, isolated. But together, their images blossom into kaleidoscopes, as if our mortal eyes are unfit to look upon such beauty. It’s quintessentially Gossip Girl, the larger-than-life emotions of rich, carefree young adults on full display. “Pillowtalk” is this close to being ridiculous, but in the Kardashian world we live in, it’s the purest form of celebrity as art.



Zayn’s brand of alternative R&B is carefully curated to exude maximum cool, even if he’s backed by all the major-label power in the world. But left largely to his own devices, Zayn’s made a record that’s as quiet as it is confident. Not every song needs to be a #1 hit in the making.

So Mind of Mine lacks the world-beating singles of his contemporaries - a “Can’t Feel My Face” or “Where Are Ü Now” - but it’s a more consistent listen than Bieber’s Purpose, or even Beauty Behind the Madness, the Weekend’s fifth album. These songs are masterfully crafted, but not in the Max Martin/One Direction sense, where every hook’s engineered for maximum impact. It’s more that each element’s in perfect balance - lyrics, melody, production. There are no cheap drops or EDM bangers. Songs like “It’s You”, where Zayn croons in falsetto, are all negative space. “Befour” and “She” are dance-pop at its gentlest, uniquely British in their modesty. On “Intermission: Flower”, Zayn - the world’s biggest Muslim popstar - sings in his native Urdu, a statement that’s only political for how seamlessly it fits in with everything else.

Zayn’s still maturing as a vocalist and artist, but he’s more comfortable than he ever seemed in One Direction. He’s no Frank Ocean-level singer-songwriter, but he doesn’t need to be when his songs’ surface pleasures are so instant. His lyrics aren’t exactly autobiographical; instead, they’re about moments, sensations, experiences. Where One Direction’s love songs were pure, idealistic, there’s an uncertainty to Zayn’s seduction. He’s been through too much to offer himself as some kind of white-knight romantic saviour.

One Direction may have been a hit factory, but they didn’t suppress Zayn’s talent. They nurtured it, performing in front of thousands on tour every night. And when it was over, they provided the perfect counter-narrative to push against. Mind of Mine wouldn’t exist without them.

When Zayn left the band, there was a sense that he was burning it all down - his celebrity, his friendships with his bandmates, his relationship of three years. At the end of the day, the music has to outlast the drama. It’s easier not to think of One Direction while listening to Mind of Mine. And that’s exactly how Zayn wants it.

‘Mind of Mine’ is available now through RCA/Sony.

Follow Richard S. He’s tweets about Smash Mouth’s 'All Star' @Richaod.