During his press tour for Mind of Mine, Zayn Malik has made one thing abundantly clear: his debut solo album, out today (Mar. 25), is the album he wanted to make after being strong-armed into One Direction’s pop formula. “I’ve done enough in terms of financial backing for me to live comfortably. I just want to make music now,” he told the Fader. “I’m not censoring myself anymore,” he told Billboard. “With the music that I’m doing now, I get to express myself, and that creative tension is gone,” he says in Complex. If there was any doubt, this was always going to be Zayn’s TITRM—his "this is the real me" album.
A TITRM occurs in pop music whenever an artist breaks the shackles from a former iteration of their career and wants to speak about that transition candidly. Think business victories like Janet on Control and Prince with Emancipation, but also “I’m grown up and can be SEXUAL now” moments like Justin Timberlake with Justified or Christina Aguilera with Stripped. A TITRM knocks the cookie cutter out of the industry’s hand and lets us know that it’s time to get really, really real. And we, as listeners, have a juicy metamorphosis narrative we can sink our teeth into.
One of the most recent examples of a TITRM album is Miley Cyrus’ 2013 album, Bangerz, which freed the former Disney phenom from her family-friendly Hannah Montana stardom and bestowed her with a much more controversial, decisively tongue-wagging role. Two-and-a-half years after that project dropped, here comes Zayn, with his own industry monolith to upend. He could have made a Bangerz if he wanted to—an album that was brash and slapdash and unapologetically playful. He could have been dancing with molly, or shouting out the girls with the big butts, in his post-1D exploration of music outside of boy band culture. Instead, Zayn has given us an album that is essentially the anti-Bangerz, for better or worse (but, thankfully, mostly for better).
The big difference is in the approach. Miley celebrated leaving Disney Music Group and undergoing a rebirth at RCA Records by deciding to go hip-hop and enlisting Mike WiLL Made-It to help her get there. For Miley, excess was the means to disintegrating her past image, so you had features by Future, Big Sean, Nelly and Ludacris; songs produced by Mike WiLL, Dr. Luke and Pharrell Williams; and a highly glossy Britney Spears collaboration. After Miley’s Disney image prohibited her from making music with these artists, Miley treated her first post-Disney project the same way an eight-year-old with a $100 bill would treat a candy store visit: she wanted everything, right away.
The result is a beautiful train wreck of an album, with some genuinely stellar moments but zero rhyme or reason. Some artists crave cohesion; Miley just wanted to throw the biggest party in pop, and add a "Z" at the end of it.
Zayn, on the other hand, does crave cohesion… and solitude. Mind of Mine is an insular TITRM album, proudly announcing who Zayn is without letting too many others join in on that announcement. The 20-song deluxe edition has exactly one featured artist (Kehlani on the standout “Wrong”) and very few collaborators in the album credits; it has big moments, but it’s a relatively quiet album, with minor funk passages leading into serene interludes. Like Cyrus, Zayn is an adult now and wants to talk about sex; unlike Cyrus, he’s singing about the bedroom as a “war zone” and depicting love-making as abstract art in his “PillowTalk” music video. Speaking of which, the “PillowTalk” video, complete with its icy stares and sullen imagery, should have been the perfect tip-off to the self-seriousness of Mind of Mine. If Miley’s coming-of-age moment was an animated fantasia for stoners, Zayn’s is an arthouse flick shot in muted tones.
The main drawback of that effect is the lack of a “We Can’t Stop” or “Wrecking Ball” on Mind of Mine—a go-for-broke moment in which all of the outlandish dares congeal into a dizzying triumph. “PillowTalk” glides impressively, and songs like “Befour,” “She” and “Rear View” back up their effortless style with songwriting substance, but it’s all too manicured to truly surprise.
However, Mind of Mine is more of an actual album than Bangerz; what it lacks in kookiness, Zayn’s debut makes up for in density. There are very few missteps here, and while 20 tracks is a lot to plow through in one sitting, Mind of Mine swivels through enough ideas to never seem superfluous. On Mind of Mine, Zayn meditates on betrayal, physical stimulation, being drunk and feeling alive, all while operating in a type of multicolor R&B murk. Kudos to James “Malay” Ho for pairing Malik’s haunted words with enough crackling rhythms to keep us entertained.
And in the same way that Miley stayed true to herself with Bangerz, Zayn has successfully captured who he is at this juncture with his Anti-Bangerz. He is a reluctant sex symbol, unsteady student of pop song craft and great admirer of the R&B elite; he is shy, serious, steadfast in learning how to be uncompromising and slowly understanding how to be happy. He possesses a unique voice that’s not overpowering but is nuanced enough to move you. He doesn’t want you to forget that he knows what he’s doing—he’s played stadiums before, after all—but also wants you to acknowledge that his first story is done, and his next one will be just as compelling.
Mind of Mine is a convincing argument for that solo appeal. His TITRM album lacks the carefree zip of something like Bangerz, but even if it’s a more somber pop project than one would like for the opening days of spring, it’s a project that paints a captivating portrait of the post-Directioner as a young man. Zayn may not have made a party record, but finally, this is his party, and he can do what he wants.