From George Michael to Robbie Williams to Abz from 5ive, everyone loves a boyband escapee. The compelling narrative for Zayn Malik’s debut solo album – ‘pouting pop rebel defies tyrannical high-trousered ruler’ – was written before he’d recorded a note. It’s why lead single ‘Pillowtalk’ seemed fit to burst with previously repressed sexuality. The buzzcuts, the leather jackets and the selfies with supermodel girlfriend Gigi Hadid suggest the lad from Bradford is enjoying his new-found freedom. But is he merely following a well-worn path, or is he in it for the long haul?
The first notes of the album succeed in plonking him a million miles from his chirpy boyband past: “I’m on the edge, I can’t find my way” he warbles plaintively through a fog of effects. Frank Ocean is clearly the model for ‘Mind Of Mine’ and it’s no coincidence that Zayn’s primary creative foil here is James ‘Malay’ Ho, who co-wrote and produced much of Ocean’s ‘Channel Orange’. The beginning of ‘It’s You’ sounds like that album’s ‘Bad Religion’, with its melancholy jazz chords and confessional vocals – though it’s debatable how much Zayn is ready to confess.
His frustration with the suffocating One Direction regime is restricted to a few coded lines in ‘Befour’ (“No strings for you to pull on… can’t tune my chords into your song”), so it’s not particularly revelatory. Zayn’s forte appears to be bedroom politics. ‘Pillowtalk’ already gave us “it’s our paradise and it’s our warzone”, while ‘Lucozade’ excavates the dark side of a tempestuous affair via deft lines such as “the elephant in this room/disguised as your perfume”. Sure, Zayn isn’t quite The Weeknd, although the gauzy ‘Drunk’ has a good stab at Abel Tesfaye’s favourite metaphor of love as intoxication (“Late nights, red eyes/Amnesia on ice”).
Zayn has clearly achieved his aim of making an album of sexy, credible pop-R&B. ‘Mind Of Mine’ is sumptuously produced and perfectly sung, with just enough intrigue. If it lacks personality, there are signs – especially on the dubby neo-soul of ‘Truth’ – that he’s in the process of developing one. The dark days of scripted horseplay with Harry Styles seem a long way in the past.