‘Mind of Mine’ Solidifies Zayn as Our Most Unlikely Pop Star

Exactly one year ago today, the world — or at least social media — was taken by storm when One Direction heartthrob Zayn Malik announced that he would be leaving the then-unstoppable British boy band. This followed an announcement a week prior, when Zayn had taken an unexpected break from his group’s world tour, citing “stress” as a cause for his exhaustion. At that same time, Zayn and band mate Louis Tomlinson were both being asked by the Philippines Bureau of Immigration to post bonds amounting to almost $5,000 each. The request was part of a special work permit agreement that forbade the two from smoking or promoting marijuana while in the country — prompted by a video that had previously emerged featuring the two friends hotboxing with a joint in a car.

A year later, Zayn Malik is releasing his first solo studio album, Mind of Mine. Though the wounds are probably still fresh for those who really had invested in One Direction as a group (they’ve since gone on an indefinite hiatus that may or may not turn into a permanent split), Zayn’s evolution over these past 365 days lends credibility to the idea that a lot can happen over a year.

During that time, Zayn broke up with his girlfriend of four years, Perrie Edwards, who he had been engaged to for almost two. And, amidst rumors that he had broken up with the Little Mix singer over text message, Zayn entered a new high-profile relationship with one of the most sought-after “models of the moment,” Gigi Hadid. He turned on his old friends only to later turn on his new friends. He won an award for Outstanding Contribution to Music at the 2015 Asian Awards. He dyed his hair lime green, then silver, and then hot pink. With the media attention that these progressions commanded, it was clear that he was being primed for pop superstardom.

But none of it would have been at all important if it weren’t for the music. When Zayn first left the band, he mentioned a desire to be a “normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight,” but it didn’t take more than a full day after he left the band for Zayn to be spotted in a recording studio. “Normal” life aside, Zayn, in that moment, made it clear that he was a musician with a real commitment to the art. It’s why it wasn’t too surprising to hear him later reflect, in his first major interview as a solo artist with The FADER, on his real reason for leaving:

There was never any room for me to experiment creatively in the band. If I would sing a hook or a verse slightly R&B, or slightly myself, it would always be recorded 50 times until there was a straight version that was pop, generic as fuck, so they could use that version. Whenever I would suggest something, it was like it didn’t fit us. There was just a general conception that the management already had of what they want for the band, and I just wasn’t convinced with what we were selling. I wasn’t 100 percent behind the music. It wasn’t me.

All of these feelings culminate on Mind of Mine. His rejection of One Direction’s “generic as fuck” pop sound couldn’t be more obvious, because Mind of Mine, for all intents and purposes, is not a pop album, at least sonically. Zayn’s debut seems much more in line with the products coming from R&B’s “over”-underground — it is as decidedly sexy as anything from Miguel’s catalog while also maintaining a sense of introspection reflective of Frank Ocean’s channel, ORANGE. Even so, what keeps Zayn in a league of his own is his clear pop ambition.

It’s no surprise that the 23-year-old called his album Mind of Mine. Even over the course of the deluxe edition’s hourlong playtime, the whole effort is so tightly knit that it’s difficult to imagine this not all coming from one person’s “mind.”  Front to back, even as he flits between slow ballads and thumping club jams, the album appears to be almost seamless in its cohesion. This could, of course, be attributed to album’s thematic focus, let’s say — the man loves to sing about sex, and love, and more sex — but his attention to the album-as-complete-work form is impressive to say the least.

What Mind of Mine is, in that respect, is the album that any 23-year-old former boy band member should want to make, but, for whatever reason, has not. He one-ups the “mature debut” by not only shedding his boy band naiveté but also putting on his playboy confidence. Justin Timberlake wasn’t too much younger than Zayn is now when he released his post-*NSYNC debut, but it’s very hard to imagine hearing a line like, “I’ll get her wetter than ever / Four letters are never the question,” on Justified. On Mind of Mine‘s Kehlani-assisted “wRoNg” (which is also the only feature on the entire album), that line seems so natural that it’s easy to not even notice it’s there. Most singers in Zayn’s predicament will usually evolve from complimenting girls to trying to pick them up; on Mind of Mine, Zayn skips the courting stage and jumps right into the bedroom.

And even in places where Zayn doesn’t seem to have matured as much — like with the album’s tracklisting, which features wonky capitalization tricks (“MiNd Of MiNdd”; “rEaR vIeW”) that recall the days of AOL Instant Messenger away messages — the decisions seem so deliberate in intent that you eventually just accept them as being yet another extension of the world that he wanted to create to present this particular vision.

And the music is good. Really good. Zayn’s roots are in R&B, no doubt, but the sounds he adopts from song to song are delightfully varied, if only by slight nuances. “iT’s YoU” is a slow-burning number whose somewhat bitter sentiment could very easily be overshadowed by the pretty repetition of the song’s title phrase in the chorus. “sHe,” a self-described “party tune,” and “lUcOdAzE” both glistening with ’80s sheen and wouldn’t sound out of place on an album like Carly Rae Jepsen’s excellent E•MO•TION. Songs like “PILLOWTALK,” “TiO,” and “wRoNg” forsake innuendo for outright sexual boldness — while still maintaining a certain degree of subdued seduction. And this wouldn’t be a Zayn solo debut if he didn’t dedicate a couple of songs to his former bandmates — whether directly, like on the confessional “tRuTh,” or just tangentially, like on the surprisingly calm (and upbeat) fuck-you-haters anthem “BeFoUr.”

But nothing compares to the beautiful “fLoWeR,” the album’s “INTERMISSION.” Over guitar-strung production by frequent collaborator Malay, Zayn sings the song completely in his father’s native Urdu (the lyrics translate to, “Until the flower of this love has blossomed this heart won’t be at peace”). The song’s 104 seconds probably serve as the album’s most emotional — a proud declaration of an identity that the singer holds very close to him, conveniently placed at the album’s core (logically, if not actually temporally). It’s a strong testimonial that effectively shows his attachment to his roots. It’s a loving, open embrace of selfhood led by the display of something that only he could execute properly, an outward appreciation of that which makes him unique.

And at the end of the day that’s why Zayn deserves to be a pop star, no matter how unlikely of one he may be. Mind of Mine doesn’t have any “radio-ready” bangers, and there are no big-name features. He didn’t celebrate the release with an early-morning performance on Good Morning America, either, though the enormity of this release is still palpable. The album is simple in form, but assured in direction. It has a very now polish, latching on to current sounds in a way that’s progressive instead of reductive. But most importantly, it’s very Zayn.

When he performed newest single “LIKE I WOULD” on The Tonight Show last night, he hardly moved. Unlike pop stars before him, he didn’t have any choreography and didn’t whip out any impromptu moves — he simply grabbed onto the mic and delivered his song, with that impeccably versatile voice. But there was something about the way he emoted that commanded attention. The connection between artist and art made itself quite transparent onstage — and that, in and of itself, was enough. It’s the same feeling that permeates Mind of Mine as a whole. Just like Zayn didn’t need to be anyone else other than himself on stage, he doesn’t need to be anyone other than himself in his music, and that’s the kind of pop star we need.