Mind of Mine, the debut solo album from exiled One Direction member Zayn Malik, is sonically a bit like easing oneself into a lukewarm bath. In an epoch in which The Weeknd’s poppier work is considered musical genius, there’s certainly a public demand for tepidity—flatlined choruses that substitute vehemence for dynamics—though the edge Zayn has in this era, aside from having been a member of One Direction, is that he can actually sing quite well. (Not sang, mind you, though I’m not sure if most of these songs would benefit from sanging, either. Perhaps Monica will do a cover and we can find out.)

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The defiantly midtempo album abuts the creeping, uneasy realization through a recent series of interviews that Zayn, a man we’d love to root for in theory, doesn’t exactly seem to be bringing a whole lot of spark to the table—too indoctrinated by boy-band media training, at best. For instance, from his Complex cover:

A lot of the songs on the album seem to be about women. How influenced is your music by women?

Massively. Not just women, but life in general. I feel like women are a big part of life, so I’ve got to include them in my songs! [Laughs.]

And:

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Do you want people to have sex to your album?

Well, if that’s something that they would choose to do, then yeah.

And, almost! But not quite:

Given the amount of anger in the political discourse in this country, I can understand why you want to stay out of it.

Yeah. I see everything. I see the political thing. I see the Trump thing. I see it on the news. They are saying, “Does this mean Zayn Malik has to leave America?” These things are always there. I see what’s going on, but I’ll never be the person that will make some sort of statement. I never want to make anybody biased toward anything. I could have an opinion, but that’s my opinion. That’s the main thing for me. I don’t want to influence anybody’s brain in any sort of way.

A little more interesting, from the NME’s cover with him, where he seemed to let his guard down a bit:

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You were sensitive?

“I wasn’t sensitive… I hate to get into it because it’s not something that affects my brain any more. There was a kind of racial confusion with me. They didn’t really know where to put me. I confused arrogance with ignorance. Certain people don’t want to know certain things and I had to realise I couldn’t teach them.”

On one hand, Malik no doubt dodges tougher interview questions on race and ethnicity and religion because he is at this point the most famous Muslim of Pakistani descent in Western pop culture, likely ever—imagine being in a boy band of white dudes in England of all places and having to explain your background constantly to a general public that has, historically, been hostile at best to Muslims and Pakistanis.

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The perfect media-trained strategy, then—to avoid saying some shit that will be taken out of context, misinterpreted, or used by unscrupulous tweeters to drag you—is to briefly answer the question and move on by saying something so obliquely blank that it means almost nothing. NME figured that one out quick:

His face flickers: “Don’t panic, it’s organic.” It’s the sort of non-answer Zayn’s good at. When we ask about anything political, he clams up. When we ask about what the future holds for his 1D pals, he gives it a swerve. In all of those years of being media-trained to within an inch of his life, Zayn learnt the aikido of the interview.

Of course, this is all partially what makes Zayn interesting to journalists—the idea that there’s something deeper going on just out of one’s reach, and the hope that their interview might be the one to finally crack open the nut. Unfortunately, though, despite his media narrative that Mind of Mine is the album where he really opens up, that just-out-of-arm’s-reach approach in interviews also translates to the music.

On “BeFoUr,” a song for which he’s just released the video, he almost gives us something, or rather, if we’d like to interpret the subjectivity of these lyrics to possibly refer to leaving One Direction, or to his Little Mix ex Perrie Edwards, or to Gigi Hadid, or to our ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends or to Joan Rivers or to God, they are vague enough so that we can:

I don’t drink to get drunk

I feel all the right funk

If there’s something I want

I’ll take all the right wrongs

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

That vagueness is one tool by which we can measure whether a pop song will succeed in the marketplace—if its lyrics are sufficiently non-specific enough that a wide swathe of listeners can apply it to their own lives, assigning personal meaning to purposeful subjectivity. It’s another vestige of Zayn’s time in 1D, no doubt, and one that maybe, given enough time and space away from The Machine, he will be able to shed.

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That is, if he wants to. When Zayn announced he would be producing solo music, I was lightweight terrified (and, you know, intrigued) that it would manifest as a trap mixtape, which seemed one logical artistic conclusion for a 23-year-old fleeing the biggest and most theoretically wholesome band in the world. Now, I somewhat wish he had. Escaping the most Orwellian echelons of the music industry doesn’t always mean you’re free of its values.

“BeFoUr” is fine—there’s nothing obnoxious about it, nor is there anything particularly life-changing about it. There are no rousing choruses to inspire, nor are there sensual breakdowns to fuck to. (Unless that’s something that we would choose to do.) To apply my own personal meaning to its purposeful subjectivity: I’m visualizing the most generic yet mind-bogglingly specific place I’ve ever been, which is the mythology-themed shopping mall at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, and imagining that if the song came over a set of speakers hidden somewhere along a ceiling painted to look like cirrus clouds in a Roman sky, I would probably be pretty juiced. But not as juiced as if they played, like, T-Pain. (Related to Mind of Mine: I also have a tough time listening to a sex song about “take it off” that’s entitled “TiO,” which makes me think of my uncles.)

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The video, however, is probably the closest we’ve gotten to knowing Zayn thus far (“Pillowtalk” video notwithstanding)—or at least he wants us to think as much. It reminisces about his life before X-Factor, before One Direction, and reclaims his true identity before it was scrubbed by the vagaries of boy-band-dom. The NME:

His latest video, for forthcoming single ‘Befour’, was shot in Manchester’s grimy Miles Platting district just a few days ago. It dramatises all the stuff of Northern working class teenage life: Ford Fiestas, crappy takeaways and endless ladding about. Zayn loves what he calls “lad sh*t” (in addition to his crossbow, he has a couple of scrambler bikes, a go-kart and a samurai sword he describes as his “pride and joy”).

“It wasn’t like: ‘I’m still Jenny from the block’,” he says of the vid. “It was more like: this is what I used to do. Go down the chip shop, hang out with my boys in the car park. We never set fire to cars, but…”

Don’t be fooled by the rocks that Zayn’s got. Probably the realest, and most revealing, part about the “BeFoUr” video is the way it mythologizes teenhood, makes it seem as though the freest and most invigorating time in a person’s life, which for an untethered Zayn it would seem to have been. And yet ironically, that was One Direction’s primary effect as well, albeit inadvertently, as the band picked up the baton for boy-bands from the Beatles on and helpfully ignited the inchoate libidos of a generation of young people. Here, though, the presentation seems purer—Zayn at the barber in a track jacket while his boys get Friday-night fades. He’s still in the yield zone with the songs, but at least he’s getting there.


Image via screenshot