Zayn Malik Is Still Figuring Himself Out on Mind of Mine

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If you’ve got about 13 minutes to spare, there are, actually, more shameful ways to spend them than watching this YouTube clip of One Direction’s original X Factor auditions. It’s an amusing little pop time capsule: Back in 2010, each of the five then-teens tried out for the show as solo artists (after they were all cut, judge Simon Cowell had the bright, lucrative idea to put them all together as a group and reenter them into the competition as One Direction), so these audition videos are the clearest way to see their individual personalities as potential solo stars. Sixteen-year-old Harry Styles, already with the beyond-his-years panache to pull off a skinny, Jagger-esque scarf, exudes a natural, effortless charisma with an a cappella rendition of “Isn’t She Lovely.” Previous season reject Liam Payne has to try a little harder to wow the judges with a hammy Michael Bublé song, but he sticks the landing. Louis Tomlinson impresses with his angelic, unthreatening falsetto, and Niall Horan warbles his way through a pitchy rendition of Ne-Yo’s “So Sick,” only making it through to the next round because guest judge Katy Perry takes pity on him. Then, finally, a shy, slump-shouldered kid shuffles up to the stage. “Uh, my name’s Zayn,” he mumbles, even then seeming like the one who’s the least comfortable with all the televised pageantry. He’s just there to sing.

Five years, four albums, and countless worldwide trending topics later, Zayn was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the first to jump ship. On March 25, 2015 — a day that for millions of teenage girls lives in infamy — he issued a statement: “I am leaving because I want to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight.” But Zayn’s year away from 1D hasn’t exactly been the stuff of “normal 22-year-old” life: He graced the cover of magazines, started dating a very famous supermodel, and, last month, scored his first solo No. 1 hit with the sultry R&B song “Pillowtalk.” He’s taken some space from his bandmates, and gradually begun to voice gently pointed criticisms of One Direction’s music. “There was never any room for me to experiment creatively in the band,” he told The Fader late last year, in a candid cover story. “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 … I wasn’t 100 percent behind the music. It wasn’t me.” Aside from the occasional quote like this, Zayn has remained relatively respectful of his former bandmates, although Mind of Mine, Zayn’s first solo album, has a sly fuck-you of a release date: It’s the first anniversary of the day he left the band.

The gold standard of the post-boy-band R&B-tinged solo debut is (and probably always will be) Justin Timberlake’s Justified, and Mind of Mine doesn’t exactly rise to those heights. But Zayn, the group’s most cooly muted presence, never seemed interested in Timberlakean world domination anyway (Styles might be another story), and Mind of Mine is a fittingly laid-back, low-key affair. Zayn’s kindred spirits aren’t the ghosts of boy bands past so much as modern R&B shape-shifters Miguel and Tinashe, and auteurist pop recluses Jai Paul and Frank Ocean. That last one comes as no surprise, since Zayn’s most prominent collaborator here is Malay, the producer who produced and co-wrote Ocean’s millennial landmark Channel Orange. None of these songs have the observant details and lived-in texture of Ocean’s work, and they often feel like the expressions of a talented singer who’s still in the process of figuring out what makes his perspective unique. As Zayn continues to eke out his own space in the ever-changing pop world, Ocean’s a more promising role model than most.

“Pillowtalk” is the closest thing on here to a smash single, but I much prefer its follow-up, “It’s You,” a zero-gravity ballad with a hook that drifts as weightlessly as a smoke ring. Zayn fares better with slow tempos and ballads than happy-go-lucky pop (he takes himself very seriously, occasionally to a fault), but Mind’s most winning moments are when he blends these two impulses. The impassioned throwback “Fool for You” and the Weeknd-esque “She” are two of the album’s more memorable moments, but as the track numbers stretch into double digits, many of the hazy, amorphous songs start to blend into one another. The most striking song — and the one that suggests the most interesting direction for the future of Zayn’s sound — is actually an interstitial called “Flower,” a simple but hypnotic love song sung in Urdu. Zayn bears both the distinction and the burden of being the West’s most famous (and only) Muslim pop star, and plenty of interviewers have questioned why he doesn’t take a more overt political stance in his songs. But the understated inclusion of this Urdu song feels, in its own way, just as powerful as a political statement: It’s a personal assertion of the ways in which his heritage is woven into, but does not wholly define, his identity.

And as he continues to sketch out the silhouette of that adult self in public, of course, there will be bumps in the road. A few elements of Mind of Mine strain for “edgy” but just come off as goofy and awkward: the Myspace-bio stylization of the track listing (“BeFoUr,” “tRuTh,” “BoRdErsZ”), the dizzying and overly self-serious video for “Pillowtalk.” But it’s that spirit of brooding rebellion that gives Zayn his own distinct pop persona — something he might not have been able to cultivate so successfully if he didn’t have that squad of shiny, happy ex-bandmates to put it into contrast. After all, that slouchy kid singing a Mario song on X Factor didn’t yet have what it took to be a star on his own. One Direction may have stifled Zayn creatively, but in the long run they gave him something invaluable to his free-spirited image: a safe and happy home from which to flee.

*A version of this article appears in the April 4, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.