Monday, March 28, 2016

album review: 'mind of mine' by zayn

Kind of amazing how history repeats itself, isn't it?

Well, not directly, of course, but we've been down this road before, nearly fifteen years ago. The boy band now facing the difficult shift of the pop culture landscape away from pop and towards R&B, with a clear stand out talent looking to go solo and thus achieve a level of fame and success the rest of the band could only dream about. It'd be a choice made with the reassurances that the boy band wasn't really dead and they'd pull things together again... only deep down, you knew that if the solo album was a smash, there was no going back.

But there are a few fairly important differences between the story of Justin Timberlake and Zayn Malik, the first being that while N'Sync folded very quickly after JT's departure, One Direction managed to push out one more release that actually didn't show a huge dropoff in quality. Furthermore, if you had asked anyone two years ago who the breakout star from One Direction was going to be, I don't think anyone would have said Zayn. Everyone's eyes were on Harry Styles, the guy who had dated Taylor Swift and who was the most immediately recognizable face of the group. Hell, even if you dug through the liner notes Zayn would still not be the easy choice - it wasn't like he was the prolific songwriter like JT was, quietly cowriting most of the band's biggest hits, that honour would probably go to Liam.

And yet of the inevitable stream of solo albums, Zayn was the first to the punch - and not only that, he beat out his bandmates with a #1 single, something they didn't even manage to achieve. Like Justin before him, he was remaking his image into something sleek and openly sexual - and believe it or not, I'm planning on taking this seriously. Even though Zayn is a very different performer than JT was - and I'm honestly not convinced he's better - this project doesn't immediately strike me as a studio cash grab. For one, there was reportedly a track where Zayn sang in Urdu, referencing his Pakistani heritage and spirituality for a defiantly unique move in modern pop/R&B, especially in the mainstream. His only guest star is Kehlani, a R&B singer you might recognize from one of her critically acclaimed mixtapes or the last Pusha T album, but again, not really a commercial move. At the very least, this promised to be an interesting listen, so I dug into Mind Of Mine - what did we get?

Well, believe it or not, I found this to be a much weirder listen than I was expecting, and a much tougher record to evaluate. And it's a record full of contradictions across the board: writing, instrumentation, production, performance, the whole bit. Hell, Miguel's Wildheart was easier to explain thanks to its obvious parallels to 70s rock, but the connections on Mind Of Mine are weirder still: spanning R&B sounds and textures over the past twenty years all drenched in very modern thick liquid textures that still bring out plenty of exposed edges. And yet for as much as this record flirts with darker, rougher sounds, it always seems to pivot away at the last second. In other words, man, this album is a tease, but is it a good one?

Well, let's start with Zayn himself... and look, even though I've always found him to be one of the strongest of One Direction, on his own against this production his strengths and weaknesses are all the more apparent. On the plus side, his falsetto is excellent: superb vocal control, he hits those high notes beautifully, and when he's got the full support of his multi-tracking, he gets some solid harmonies to back him up, especially on tracks like 'dRuNk' and 'rEaR vIeW' - hell, 'iT's YoU' would have been a lot less tolerable if he didn't sound as good as he does here. And when he's opposite Kehlani on 'wRoNg', they have really great vocal chemistry on a pretty damn believable hookup jam. I just wish a lot of the production trusted him to get there on his own, because there are a fair few tracks where the pitch correction is just egregious and unneeded - I get the Autotune is a fact of life in modern R&B, but I don't need Zayn sounding like Chris Brown, he's got the pipes to handle himself. What I'm not sure he has - and which kept pulling me out of these songs more than I want - is that for as much as he has pipes and volume, I kept waiting for more of an edge in his voice that doesn't really materialize. That little bite to make his delivery a little more visceral, show a little more rawness, push towards emotive territory with real punch - and yet it doesn't really come. If he had it, I think many of these songs would be far stronger, if only because his vocals would match his production that much more

Because make no mistake, so much of this production is exposed, rougher edges rising out of a mix that really does sound well-produced: there's density in the reverb and swell, but it nearly always gives Zayn's voice a lot of room to breathe and swell. And while 'PILLOWTALK' has gotten the most attention as the lead-off single with the huge drums, thicker distortion, and cloud of vocal fragments, there are songs here that play to a similar formula with much better grooves and atmosphere. The wheedling bass of 'sHe' against the rubbery synth and trap percussion actually builds a good groove that honestly plays even better on the faded, piano touched 'dRuNk'. The beat change-up on 'rEaR vIeW' is also well-executed, from the liquid guitar melody against a very pointed hi-hat to a mid-90s feel to emphasize the soft elegance in the piano and vocal harmonies, which is later echoed on one of the weirder songs here: 'fOoL fOr YoU', which sounds like a Michael Buble track with some subtle guitar edges, or maybe even a Robin Thicke track off of the Blurred Lines album. And yet that Robin Thicke comparison comes through again on next song 'BoRdErZ', all muted, somber grooves and subtle shifts. For me, though, this album got the most interesting when that darker edge started kicking through the instrumentation. 'BeFoUr' is a bit of a false start, as I really did not like that shrill synth slathered over the chorus, but when we get songs like 'wRoNg', with the darker, rougher melody against the sharper percussion cracks, or the ending track 'TiO' with perhaps the sharpest and tightest trap groove yet, and I find myself wishing Zayn could bring the same vocal intensity to his delivery as his instrumentation has. My favourite song, though, is definitely 'lUcOzAdE', the dark rubbery synths against the sharper, glitchier percussion and then that ominous bass churning up, on the verge of really snapping. And yet as much as I like this song, it does highlight an odd but expected issue: for as much atmosphere and texture as this record has, it doesn't really focus on any instrumental melodies to anchor it in the same way. Sure, you get fragments in the backing vocals or a few of the bass-heavy synths or a bit in the guitar, but between the reverb and the much more prominent percussion, you get the impression that they're easily the least important piece. And I know I sound like a broken record here, but the best way to make your tracks actually stick in the brain is to have that melodic hook in both vocals and instrumentation - I get the sad feeling that it's going to ultimately hurt this record's replay value, at least for me.

But now onto the intriguing part: what's Zayn trying to say with Mind Of Mine? Well honestly, it's a little tricky to say, because on the surface this record reads like a pretty traditional R&B record. Plenty of sex songs, dance hookup jams, and a few pretty decent love songs, even if you always get the feeling that Zayn's walking a delicate line when it comes to some of these songs between oversharing and not saying enough. 'iT's YoU' is a prime example: he's finally letting his feelings about this girl who manipulated him come out as he just keeps quiet - but doesn't this entire scene scream of the same sort of emotional manipulation, especially considering how he frames the song? Then there's 'sHe', where he's singing about some club girl who's looking for love 'in the right way' - lonely girl hiding her pain looking for love, and it's the insinuation beneath it that just rubs me the wrong way - I much preferred 'wRoNg', where at least he and Kehlani were straight about how this was just a hookup for the both of them. Or take 'rEaR vIeW', where when the girl finishes traversing the world she's looking to come back for a 'friend' - at least Zayn is smart enough to realize he doesn't want to keep looking back on the past. Maybe that's why on 'BeFoUr' or 'tRuTh' he never really comes out with direct shots at his former band or their management for stifling his artistic growth... but on the other hand he's playing it awfully cute and calculated, especially on 'tRuTh' where he's not pointing fingers, but making heavy implications that's only a matter of time before the rest of them see 'the truth'. I much preferred 'lUcoZaDe', where he's stuck surrounded by fakers and uncertainty and those seeking to use him, and when the girl sashays up to try to exploit him and cheat on her boyfriend, Zayn hooks up with her, but it's under his terms. That's why the closing track 'TiO' is played hard and aggressive for a sex song, daring the girl to 'say uncle' and submit in the clash for dominance... and yet she never does, they're well matched. 

But really, I don't have any real issues with the writing on this album: it's certainly taking more stabs at mature subject matter than Zayn did with One Direction, and he's got enough poise to pull it off decently well. And really, that's pretty much my judgement on this record: it aims to tease and tantalize and revel in newfound maturity, but never get too filthy or raunchy, more about the tease than the outright contact. The big problem is that if you keep teasing and never deliver release you'll either drive them crazy or just leave them frustrated and bored, and more often than not I fell into the latter category with Mind Of Mine. As a solo debut it's a good step, but the lack of more defined melodies and a more compelling performance from Zayn leaves me underwhelmed, even if it is a record that'll grow on you. For me, it's a strong 6/10 and a recommendation, especially if you're a fan who may have 'grown out of' One Direction, but if Zayn wants to play in the big leagues against Miguel, The Weeknd, Usher, Jeremih, or even Chris Brown or Bryson Tiller, he's got some stiff competition ahead.

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