Zayn Speaks His Mind–And Not Yours–On Debut Album

by Jade

Jade looks at the debut from FOM’s favorite former boybander.

ZAYN’s solo album is finally here. And it’s pretty solid.

But a lot of the commentary you’ll hear about the album will come packaged with repressed emotions over Zayn’s departure from One Direction, so I’ll start there.

When Zayn quit the band, he caused lingering feelings of grief in the hearts of millions of 1D fans around the globe. Including mine.

I, too, was a 1D fan. Initially, I was upset that the band as we knew it was pretty much over and done with, but I was also happy for Zayn. As the years pressed on, he seemed to become more and more withdrawn in interviews and performances; clearly, the move was the right choice for him. Even if it wasn’t the smoothest exit in boyband history.

His sensational, hasty desertion–mid-tour, amid tabloid cheating allegations, and delivered via Facebook while his bandmates played a show in Jakarta–was one of the biggest news stories of 2015. The buzz followed him around all year, from his first solo red carpet appearance at the 2015 Asian Awards, to Men’s Paris Fashion Week, to his signing with RCA in July, to his first magazine cover in September. And it’s still lingering, even as his solo album sits atop iTunes charts around the world.

Unsurprisingly, that buzz has both helped and hurt Zayn.

It helped him break away from being one of the “other” members of 1D to the general public–aka anyone who isn’t Harry Styles–and, along with a new management team, landed him a slew of magazine spreads and interviews. But those interviews included candid answers to questions about his time in 1D, and that’s where the hurt really started to kick in.

In The FADER, Zayn offered his first public admissions about the music he released with 1D:

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.

It makes sense, then, that he wanted to break out on his own, especially considering how much more into–and responsible for–the collective sound the other members of the group were. Artists should be able to express their ideas and creativity in the projects they put their names on, but Zayn has reiterated time and again he was not given that opportunity in 1D.

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Zayn signed with RCA at the end of July.

When he signed with RCA, Zayn announced the start of his solo career with the hashtags “#realmusic” and “#realme,” inciting a firestorm from fans who took his words as a slight against the band they’d loved and supported for the last five years. In Finding – and Hating – the Real Zayn, Julia Irion Martins writes:

What’s hurtful about Zayn’s #realmusic is that someone from the inside, someone we expected to respect us, is now doing the opposite: being openly disrespectful.

Zayn’s tweet could be interpreted as poor wording. It could, admittedly, be a dig at One Direction. Or it could be a declaration: he’s finally able to make the music he dreamed of making when he auditioned for The X-Factor all those years ago. Music that’s real to him and his experiences.

But some fans aren’t very interested in reality. The Verge’Kaitlyn Tiffany writes:

Boy bands are about fantasy fulfillment. They create a world in which boys are kind, and people don’t hurt each other on purpose … the group is a cohesive, functional whole, which means there’s no room for “creative differences” or rifts — never mind a real, contentious breakup.

Zayn even touched on this idea in conversation with The FADER:

… it’s just the way the fans are. They’re so passionate, and once they get their head around an idea, that’s the way it is regardless of anything. 

Some fans seem to feel a sense of ownership over 1D. The band is their “happy place,” and thus should primarily exist for that purpose alone. They should never be anything but five brothers on the ride of their lives, and they should never question the products they push along the way.

It’s about time we all faced reality. We’re entitled to our feelings, but not at the expense of the people those feelings are for. One Direction was Zayn’s real life for five years; that takes precedence over the alternate universe any of us created for him in our heads.

Nonetheless, Zayn’s statements might have lost him the full power of 1D’s fanbase–but not all of it. His first single shot to number one on the Billboard charts, his new album is poised to take the top spot tomorrow, and his music is sure to bring in new fans.

So let’s talk about the music.

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zayn🎶

On his debut Mind of Mine, Zayn layers different genres of music to create a distinct sound and style, all while remaining very much R&B. The influences are there, of course–“dRuNk” has some Usher vibes, while “SHE DON’T LOVE ME” would fit on any 90s R&B playlist–but Zayn never loses sight of his singular vision.

And what’s that, exactly?

Most of the past week’s reviews seem to think it’s sex. The album has an undeniably lusty undercurrent: there’s “fucking and fighting” in “PILLOWTALK”; keeping it casual in a friends-with-benefits kind of way in “wRoNg,” his collaboration with Kehlani; and “TiO,” which leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination.

To some, this is Zayn making a statement about his new image as an adult contemporary artist, in every sense of the term. To others, this is a function of Zayn trying to distance himself from One Direction. (Completely ignoring some of the glaringly obvious sexual innuendo in 1D’s lyrics, even dating back to their first album, Up All Night. Anyone remember “Another World”? To be fair, it was a B-side. But there’s also “No Control”; “Little White Lies”; “Alive”; and “Love You Goodbye,” off Made in the A.M., 1D’s first album sans Zayn.)

And to me? Zayn’s a 23-year-old man who likes to have sex, so it’s not surprising he wants to talk about sex in some of his songs. And that’s some, not all, because he explores other themes, too: vulnerability in relationships, heartache, love, regret, friendship.

In “fOoL fOr YoU,” a gorgeous Lennon- and Elton John-esque piano ballad, Zayn pours his heart out about falling over and over again for a “tainted” love. “rEaR vIeW” examines self-worth in a toxic relationship, while “INTERMISSION: fLoWeR” is a stunning song entirely in Urdu. It’s one of the many musical touches on the album that draw from Zayn’s Pakistani roots (along with Bollywood instrumental influences in “iT’s YoU” and “MiNd Of MiNdd (Intro)”). Standout track “BeFoUr” is widely rumored to be about his former bandmates, both due to the lyrics (“Can’t tune my chords into your songs, no”) and the title (FOUR was the last album he recorded with the group).

Throughout, these songs only benefit from Zayn’s voice. He stays in his lower register for a good portion of the album, going along with the hazy, heady vibe of some of the slower tracks. He isn’t shy about slipping into his falsetto, either, with an incredible high note during the last bridge of “sHe.” And his impressive, powerful higher register is on full display in “PILLOWTALK,” “LIKE I WOULD,” and “TiO.”

Still, he leaves a few things to be desired vocally. Knowing the full versatility of Zayn’s voice, I’m sometimes left yearning for more of his power, more of the oomph he’s displayed in 1D’s catalogue. Keeping the vocals simple and understated might be a stylistic choice, and not one of necessity, but it makes for one of the few disappointing aspects of the album. Hopefully, more live performances are in the pipeline. Zayn’s performances of “iT’s YoU” and “LIKE I WOULD” on The Tonight Show in February and March, respectively, brought in rave reviews. (BBC Live Lounge, anyone?)

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malayho: Recording in tents. Acoustic treatment from surrounding trees and open air is epic

Like Zayn’s vocals, the production of Mind of Mine is also a thing of beauty. “BeFoUr”–crafted  by James Ryan Ho, better known as Malay–is incredibly intricate, and one of the album’s purest R&B moments. Malay, of course, had a hand in producing a large part of Frank Ocean’s Grammy-winning album Channel Orange, so Ocean’s influence can be found here and there throughout Mind of Mine, but the sound is still overwhelmingly Zayn’s.

Or at least I think it is. Others, like Jamieson Cox at The Verge, seem to disagree:

“Pillowtalk” and “Truth” are guitar-centric and billowing, like Costco versions of the music on Miguel’s Wildheart; Kehlani feature “Wrong” and single “Like I Would” sound just like The Weeknd, solemn and depraved. The album’s introspective moments suggest Frank Ocean, the genre’s beloved poet-hermit, and its upbeat ones suggest Jeremih.

If Zayn is only a product of these artists, then they’re only products of others. There’s Kanye West, who with 808s and Heartbreak paved the way for rappers and R&B singers (and Zayn) to pour out their emotions with broken-down beats and melancholic lyrics. And there’s Drake, who emerged soon after, featured The Weeknd on Take Care’s “Crew Love,” and brought the melancholy vibe to new heights of popularity. And, to be fair to Cox, that does bring us to The Weeknd. After three years and a feature on an Ariana Grande song, Abel properly broke mainstream radio with a new-but-familiar sound, borrowing from more rhythmic R&B and Michael Jackson–coincidentally one of Zayn’s musical heroes.

My point is: modern R&B hardly belongs to any one musician. It’s recycled, reused, and reinvented as artists create their own distinct sound. Music builds off itself. We wouldn’t have today’s R&B if we didn’t have all the incarnations–and the other genres–that came before it. (Also, nothing on the album sounds even remotely close to Jeremih, but nice try, I guess?)

Still, many people just aren’t very willing to accept Zayn’s contribution. Cox continues:

If the album is a success, all of the artists listed above as influences take on different roles. They’re more than just contemporaries. They’re competitors, and they all offer a signature quality Zayn is still trying to find.

True, these artists will compete with Zayn in the pop-R&B landscape, but I’d argue that Zayn has several things giving him that signature quality–and edge–Cox denies him: an incredible voice, a singular point of view, an understanding of who he wants to be musically, and the ability to weave all of that together into one cohesive album.

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Zayn celebrating his number one debut single.

Zayn’s debut, after all, is called Mind of Mine, and that’s exactly what we’re getting. For the first time, we’re hearing Zayn’s #realmusic: his thoughts, his feelings, his life. And no one else’s.

Jade is a journalist, fashion blogger, and lover of all things pop culture. Catch her on Twitter and Instagram @jadejarvistv.

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