Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Ryan Middleton and Jon Niles chat about ZAYN's new album, Mind of Mine.
Carolyn Menyes: Exactly one year after leaving One Direction, Zayn released his debut solo album Mind of Mine. Though he tried to pass off his March 25 release date as a mere coincidence, I think we're all a little smarter than that. It's been 12 months since he left the biggest boy band (and arguably straight up band) in the world... and it's time to "Open up and see what's inside of my, my mind."
Did Zayn succeed in this endeavor? He teased his R&B roots, citing everything from R. Kelly to Tupac as an influence. And that sort of The Weeknd and Frank Ocean meets pure pop is the dominating sound on Mind of Mine. And the lyrics are cheesy and terrible enough to lead me to believe Zayn wrote a good deal of them himself. But, do we finally know who he really is as an ~artiste~?
Ryan Middleton: Yeah... the one year on from one direction for his debut solo album is absolutely no coincidence. You have nobody fooled Mr. Mailk.
It is clear he wanted to get as far away as possible from the stadium-sized, label-manufactured radio pop with One Direction for something he feels is more personal and close to himself as an artist. Normally artists take some time to adjust to that transition and there are remnants of that old sound, but it is all gone. The lyrics are still a bit cheesy and could use some polishing, but there is a well-oiled, sultry R&B sheen to this record that is impressive for a debut effort.
Jon Niles: Zayn hated being in One Direction, so the release date for this album is clearly not a coincidence. It's not too big of a deal in my mind though. This record is solid, even if he was in a boy band that lost a reality TV show and then became overwhelmingly popular.
This entire album is screaming, "Yes, I've had the sex so much, you guys," which is actually fine for the R&B audience. I mean, Carolyn just pointed out that he names R. Kelly as an influence, so it makes sense that he's singing about getting it on. While his lyrics are certainly lacking in the sophistication department, it really doesn't take away from the finished product.
I'm listening to the deluxe version of the album, which has 18 tracks. Now, I saw that and my eyes rolled out of my head, onto the floor and out the door, but they raced back once my ears were like, "Oh, wait - this is good!" Honestly, this reminds me of throwback The Weeknd, when he would release mixtapes every once in a while before he broke out. Maybe the Hadid sisters have this effect on pop singers.
CM: There is SO MUCH sexing on this record, and I think a lot of it is awkwardly written about. We get it Zayn, you're super hot and are dating a super hot supermodel and you guys have super hot sex. But, then he refers to doing it as everything from a "war zone" ("Pillowtalk") to not a "fair fight" ("Wrong") to a "sweet profanity" ("Bordersz"). It's just awkward to me. I actually found a lot of the writing on this record to be a little corny. Lines like "I don't drink to get drunk / I feel all the right funk" ("Befour") and "Let's get naked and explore our inner secrets" ("Tio") literally made me cringe.
And, as much as Zayn hated being in One Direction (at times), there are a lot of those inherent pop lessons on this record. I think it's pretty top heavy -- and the fact that he tracked it with singles/teaser tracks as the first four songs ("Pillowtalk," "It's You," "Befour" and "She") is a CLASSIC bubblegum pop move. And these are pretty undeniably the best songs on the record (along with his Kehlani collaboration "Wrong").
Maybe it's because I am not the biggest R&B fan, but I just got bored of this album after about 10 songs. And, despite being 18 tracks in length, it's only an hour long. Songs like "Bordersz," "Truth" and "Lucozade" all feature really nice vocals from Zayn, but the music itself just drags on and on. Someone needed to edit this tracklist down a bit.
RM: The album is VERY sexy. It is before noon on this Monday morning and I am not sure I am ready for Zayn to hit me with all of the details of his sex life just yet. That being said this album sounds like something from a 23-year-old would write. It is much more straight forward and doesn't have the subtleties or smoothness one might get from a classic '90s R&B jam.
I will dissagree with you, Carolyn, that the top half of the album is without a doubt the best of the album. I think there is some tasty meat in the middle with "Rear View," "Wrong" and "Fool for You." After that it does seem to get a little long, despite only being an hour. He probably felt so suppressed in 1D that there was so much to get out in this debut effort. "Like I Would" is straight flames though. I am surprised that is down at the end and not up top since it is the most danceable of the full album.
The Weeknd influences are felt right off of the bat in "Pillowtalk" and can be heard throughout all the way to "She Don't Love Me." The interlude even is homage to a hip-hop LP.
JN: I enjoyed this album so much. This was definitely unexpected, but I think that the production is what got me. The songs are smooth but can also jump out at you with those pop hooks. There's plenty of synth leads and drum machines, but my absolute favorite was the "disconnecting a USB drive from a PC" sound in "Truth." Honestly, this album is full of similar sounding tracks, but that didn't hinder my listening experience. The production is really great and different enough on each song that I can make it through all 18 tracks without being too aware of the hour passing.
Though I think that the strong language seemed forced, I cannot deny how amazing the chorus of the closing track is.
"I think I know she don't love me / That's why I f*ck around." I LOVED this.
CM: It is interesting that "Like I Would," which I will concede is another album standout that I initially forgot about, is relegated to deluxe edition status. First, it's the album's official second single. And, yeah, it also does have a dance element to it that a lot of the rest of this record lacks. Perhaps that's the reason it is officially track No. 17 -- musically, it doesn't quite flow with the rest of this record.
I think a lot of my issues with this album is that despite being Zayn's mature, post-One Direction debut, it just feels like a guy who desperately needs to prove he's an adult. He sings "f*ck" a lot, he sings about f*cking a lot. He says he wants to show his his MiNdd, but we only get a sliver of his life experiences. I would have liked something that felt a little more wholly genuine.
And, Ryan, we will just have to disagree. I think that "Fool for You" and "Rear View" are sleepy tracks. Zayn has the voice of an angel, and especially on "Fool for You," he sounds really good. But these tracks lack a hook for me to grab onto. Inherently, this is a pop album, and I need something really groovy to pull me in. That's where a track like "Befour" or "Pillowtalk" succeed. Those songs have really pleasing drops, and the melodies are something that I can groove to all day long.
If you're looking for a slower song, I think that "She" is much more successful. Zayn pulls of some really interesting vocal phrases here, sort of clipping the end of the notes in the chorus and it's really crunchy and satisfying. Yeah, it's another song about sex, but it's one that feels worthwhile.
The album is just inconsistent, is all. Some editing on the tracklist... But it's a solo debut, I almost feel like that is to be expected.
RM: I think a lot of the cursing could be another way of rebelling against the machine that used him up for money, put him in a box and then he managed to wriggle himself free of. "Like I Would" either had to be at the beginning or the end because it doesn't fit anywhere. As a label man, one might want it at the beginning for hits, but it makes sense at the end to keep the album flow.
As for the sexy talk, he explained to the Sunday Times succinctly: "Everybody has sex, and it's something people want hear about. It's part of everybody's life, a very BIG part of life! And you don't want to sweep it under the carpet. It has to be talked about."
I like the production on the LP. It doesn't come from major, pop hit makers, but rather lesser known guys and R&B veterans who have decades of experience writing songs for the likes of Alicia Keys and John Legend. this album does feel like a Zayn effort in sound, but their steady hand can be felt with the musical maturity throughout the LP.
And I am about to pose the WAaAaAaAaY too early question here that will inevitably get slapped onto One Direction. Is Zayn the JT of the bunch? He has a head start, so it is early, but he is seems to on the pathway to most success.
RM: Though Zayn has a head start on a lot of artists putting out their debut album, Mind of Mine is an impressive solo effort. The lyrics can be a bit amateurish and disposable at times, but that can be a reflection of love as a 23-year-old. The production is top of the line and fits impeccably with his voice.
He sounds more at home writing and singing these sultry R&B pop songs. It is always good to see an artist putting out music they are actually passionate about.
JN: My experience with this album was surprising to me, to say the least. Zayn got my attention and held it for EIGHTEEN SONGS. Whether you want to say that he's a pop singer or R&B singer is irrelevant to me at this point. All I can say is that he left the biggest boy band in the world and a year-to-the-day later he gave fans a record that could easily introduce them to new kinds of music. Though he focused on sex and used the f-word a ton, it wasn't as distracting from the songs as I thought.
In a strange way, even though I don't know him, nor am I a fan of One Direction, I'm proud of Zayn. These songs have the lasting appeal that will certainly hold us over until his next album, which is something I'm definitely looking forward to.
CM: Zayn had a big legacy to live up to against One Direction, and in every direction he tried to pull away from his boy band. I buy that the sound he pulled together is genuine, and his smooth voice played nicely against the Frank Ocean/Weeknd-y vibes. I think he definitely needs to mature in to this sound and he has a ton of room to grow as a songwriter. But, for a breakout and a debut album, this is not a bad start. The bangers are definitely (for) bangin', even if you have to sift through a lot of filler to get to it.