Allow me to introduce you to the new and improved Justin Timberlake.
A year after escaping One Direction, Zayn Malik — the most talented member of the British boy band, former 12-year-old girls’ obsession and Gigi Hadid’s best accessory — just put out his first solo album.
Sick of the tight pop parameters placed on One Direction, Zayn quit the band real quick in pursuit of creative freedom, and that’s exactly what Mind of Mine is. It’s Zayn being Zayn. What does that mean? It means the virginal boy band image is tarnished with 18 songs packed with references to sex, alcohol and sex. It means basic pop ballads are ripped apart and shredded with R&B flare. It means One Direction homogeneity is replaced with a diverse set of club bangers, seductive R&B soothers and stripped down ballads.
Let’s start with the club bangers. These are the Justin Bieber “What Do You Mean?” frat party hits: “Tio,” “Pillowtalk” and “Like I Would” are rated R One Direction hits with sexy lyrics and techno beats. They won’t matter in five years, but for now, look forward to hearing them at the bars.
Where things get interesting are with the seductive R&B soothers: “Wrong,” “Truth” and “Rear View” are pretty solid but “Befour” is the essence of Zayn. Slow, steady beats are layered with subtle instrumentals to let ears catch every marvelous note Zayn hits, because at 2:15 he belts that falsetto like no other contemporary artist can. His voice just keeps soaring and seducing and working. Yes, the lyrics may be basic, but with a voice like that, dull diction can be overlooked.
But just when you thought you were listening to a former boy-bander, the intermission hits and it hits hard. “Flower,” lasting for just a minute and 44 seconds, is a minute and 44 seconds of artistic genius. As legend has it, Zayn completely improvised this Pakistani ghazal interlude. Sung in Urdu, “Flower” is probably the most notable track on Mind of Mine. It effectively turns just another R&B/pop album into something more. Nodding to his Pakistani Muslim heritage, this folky “let me practice some yoga poses” interlude is not only meaningful to Zayn, but lovely for the rest of us to listen to.
However, between “Befour” and this stand-out intermission, it’s hard to really appreciate the rest of the album. Zayn attempts to pull at our heartstrings with stripped down ballads like “It’s You,” “Fool For You” and “Blue,” but from the lack of powerful instrumentals to the absence of his entrancing vocals, they all fall short of anything but average.
Though at first listen Mind of Mine positions Zayn as the next Justin Timberlake, there’s no doubt that something is lurking behind his music that would say he’s something — someone — more. Once you get past some of the essential club hits he had to produce to stay relevant, “Truth” and “Flower” prove that Zayn has more to offer than just a few club hits and R&B jams. Whatever Zayn does next will be interesting, but for now respect the existence of “Flower” and add those R&B tracks to your sex playlist.