by NICK BUCHANAN
Like Beyoncé or Rihanna, Zayn needs not a last name for distinction. Like a cool kid on AIM or Yahoo! Messenger back in the day, he needs not your judgement for using alternating caps on his song titles. And like any young entertainer with a drive for more, he needs not four other band members dragging him down, as he's out to prove with his own solo debut, Mind of Mine.
The blueprints for a departed boy band member's solo album and a maturing child star's breakout album are nearly identical: spit the bubblegum -- bubblegum pop, that is -- out of your mouth, let those hormones write the hypersexual lyrics for you, and show them all that you're not a little kid anymore! Following a good portion of this recipe for success, Zayn went for edgy without the spectacles. Let's put it this way: if Bangerz was Miley Cyrus' way of telling the world that she's all grown up, Mind of Mine is Zayn's way of showing it.
He's an attractive 23-year-old male of considerable fame who is romantically connected to a model, so these tracks focus on the topics that you'd expect: Women, lust, love, and his Internet #haters, with emphasis on those first two. Needless to say, lead single "Pillowtalk" (or "PiLlOwT4lK," whatever) set an accurate stage for what was to come. Spare outlying piano power ballad "Fool For You," his drunken late night escapades unfold on Frank Ocean's alternative R&B turf -- and this seems to be the playing field he belonged in all along. Need proof? Check out "Wrong," where Zayn is at his most assertive and sensual; he and featured artist Kehlani (vocally, she's Tinashe and Tove Lo's lovechild) drive into the chorus in a fashion not unlike the Weeknd on "The Hills."
Being the only one of its kind on an album filled with smooth electronic R&B, that piano ballad track does falter, but don't think that Zayn's voice can't hold its own and drive a song. His vocal melodies make "Bordersz" and "It's You" as great as they are; the delicate acrobatics on the latter provide some reasoning as to why he is the first One Direction boy to get a solo break. Same goes for "Rear View," especially when those airy vocal stems pile on top of sharp electronic drum clicks at the song's back end.
Although moody R&B is totally Zayn's thing now, he hasn't lost that pop sensibility from his One Direction days, whether he likes it or not; the evidence is sprinkled throughout this record. These tracks, minus "Lucozade," which plays more like a constant stream of consciousness than a formulated song, are still hook-reliant; they're just much dirtier than before. Speaking of which, "Befour" goes hard, kept alive by a constant drumbeat and thin synth murmur. Better yet, neon-lit banger "Like I Would" and album closer "Tio" go even harder. ("Like I Would" does not appear on the standard edition of the album, which is a tragedy in every sense of the word and merits the purchase of the deluxe pressing, and "Tio" does not represent "uncle" in Spanish. Just a heads-up.)
All deluxe and retailer-exclusive tracks in, the album stretches to 20 tracks -- a feat that has become less daunting in an era when deluxe editions and repacks are unapologetic in pushing track listings well over that number. With such a lengthy debut album, Zayn gives himself ample space to shape who himself as a solo artist. It seems he's had a lot to say for a long time, and this is the first time he has been uninhibited in his craft. After all, it's much easier to build a bad boy image over some brooding PBR&B, intricately crafted to be enjoyed in the dead of night, than his former band's bright pop-rock. Sure, he intrudes on some other artists' territory -- the Weeknd was really the one to make this genre accessible to pop audiences last year -- and that would be a problem if he weren't doing this well. But he is. (★★★★ out of five)
Mind of Mine is available now under RCA Records. Standard, deluxe, and Target exclusive versions are available.