Fortune favors the bold boy-bander—or at least the first one brave enough to walk away. Less than a year after he exploded the Internet (and countless tender tween hearts) by announcing his departure from One Direction, Zayn Malik scored the one thing that always eluded the multiplatinum Brits Stateside: a Hot 100 No. 1. That single, “Pillowtalk,” wasn’t exactly a game changer sonically; a stuttering, headily atmospheric bedroom jam, it mostly served to recast him as his own grown man, dropping articulated F-bombs and describing all the things he could do “dirty and raw” now.
In exit interviews, Malik made it clear that 1D’s sunny, studio-polished pop sound never really aligned with his own tastes, which were formed more by Usher and R. Kelly than by the rock-centric reference points his former bandmates shared. He also revealed that he had enlisted James “Malay” Ho, a producer best known for his Grammy-winning work with Frank Ocean, so it’s not completely surprising that Mind of Mine—the I-am-solo-hear-me-roar insistence of the title is hard to miss—feels like such a smoothly inclusive survey in modern R&B.
More than a few tracks, especially the thrumming “Truth” and dreamy “Drunk,” conspicuously echo Ocean’s Californiacool ennui. (Malik actually relocated to Los Angeles last year, though his Golden State sounds like a twilit place he mostly occupies between midnight and 4 a.m.) “Befour,” “TiO,” and “Like I Would” lean headfirst into sleek, Weeknd-style hedonism; “Wrong Place” slips in an early-2000s Usher moment; and the falsetto seduction “Bordersz” could be vintage D’Angelo.
There are a few outliers: Sam Smith will probably wish he’d written the lush piano ballad “Fool for You,” and bonus track “Do Something Good Today” is one bong rip away from a full Bob Marley mood board. Maybe most intriguing is the delicate, Middle Eastern-tinged interlude “Flower,” sung entirely in Urdu. (Though he might currently be the most high-profile Muslim entertainer in the Western world, the half-Pakistani singer generally refuses to discuss his faith. Google ugly search terms like “boy band jihad” if you wonder why; or better yet, don’t.)
Like Justin Bieber, his fellow freedom fighter in the teen-idol rebellion, Malik’s PG-13 material and battlefield ink (even the album cover winks at his many tattoos) are clearly meant to signal independence. Unlike Bieber, though, he doesn’t sound particularly interested in pushing pop’s boundaries or dissecting the vagaries of his own fame. Instead, he tends to keep his lyrical focus exactly where you’d expect any 23-year-old’s to be: on good girls, bad girls, hard-to-get girls, and the partying and videogames that fill the rare downtime in between. With 1D now on permanent hiatus, there will almost certainly be other solo—and possibly bigger and better—Directions to follow soon. But Malik already has what it seems he’s wanted for a long time: a Mind of his own. B+
Befour A disco-kissed venture into light-fantastic funk
Fool for You A gorgeously bereft ballad, and one of the album’s most vulnerable moments
Truth A moody, pulsating tale of enemies (ex-bandmates?) and alienation