Zayn Malik's debut album Mind of Mine, his first since leaving One Direction a year ago today, has been out for less than 24 hours. So far, all it's done is remind me how sad it was to watch my favorite alternate reality crumble at the edges.
Boy bands are about fantasy fulfillment. They create a world in which boys are kind, and people don't hurt each other on purpose. Break-up songs aren't really break-up songs, because they're still bursting with affection. Unrequited love hurts less when it's stretched over a scientifically engineered hook. The group is cohesive, functional whole, which means there's no room for "creative differences" or rifts — never mind a real, contentious breakup.
This is especially the case for One Direction, a group that always sold themselves as "a band of brothers" — a bunch of nice kids who found each other by accident on a reality show and just happened to be BFF soulmates. When Zayn Malik made his unceremonious exit from the group last year, that illusion was shattered, even if the band remained.
Made in the AM, their final album before their "hiatus", made it easy to imagine a future version of myself, 40 years old, reminiscing, and singing along and crying so hard that I crash my mini van. It made me nostalgic for the person I was even just three years ago when my best friend and I first started communicating exclusively in One Direction fandom meme shorthand. It's also a really compelling treatise on friendship, which is much more interesting to present-day me than any love song could be.
By comparison, listening to Mind of Mine brings up painful memories of Zayn's swift exit, but the broader takeaway is more boring than that. The album ends up being just sort of sad exposé of a confused 23-year-old who will do just about anything to be cool. It's hard to get anything else from it.
Zayn's got fans, but not the attention he's looking for
Leaving One Direction bought Zayn the freedom he wanted, but not the audience. His new material is doing about how you would expect on the pop charts — phenomenally. The combined power of One Direction fans and bystanders lured in by a curiosity gap rocketed his debut single "Pillowtalk" to number one, a spot One Direction has never held. But as The New York Times' Jon Caramanica points out, R&B charts, and hip-hop radio, where he wants to be, are ignoring him. Hip-hop and R&B have very different value systems than pop music — people value the hard-won, the rapper who writes his own bars, the producer who cuts a banger a day. Zayn's (ill-advised) choice to write most of his own songs hints that he is at least somewhat aware of that, but who knows if he's stopped to think about whether all those album sales mean what he wants them to mean.
My colleague Jamieson Cox noted that this album follows the One Direction formula: pick a massively popular genre or artist, spin up a pastiche, then let the irresistible face do the rest of the work. Zayn wasn't enthused by One Direction's Journey or Beastie Boys predilections, but he's more than willing to borrow from The Weeknd, Miguel, Chris Brown, and, notably, R&B darling Kehlani, who shows up for a hot second on one of the album's few stand-outs.
The One Direction formula is really fun, mostly because being cool was never their top priority. An ‘80s throwback act isn't the most cutting edge approach to pop, but also, nobody is going to turn it down? One Direction have always assumed the roles of anarchic goofballs, with a dash of sugar high. The people they're cribbing from are mostly old, and think it's cute or don't care. Most of the people listening to their music weren't around the first time.
"I want to make music that I think is cool shit"
Zayn's aesthetic is the Inkwell Instagram filter and an omnipresent cigarette. His look is one part Skins, one part Miguel's Wildheart album cover, and two parts Gigi Hadid's boyfriend. This, plus the fact that Zayn's gods are thoroughly contemporary musicians, makes him look like he's playing dress up; a little kid clomping around in his older brother's Jordans. I doubt they think it's cute, if he's crossed their radar at all.
"Yeah, I'm in a boy band, but it's a cool boy band," he said in the 2013 One Direction documentary This Is Us. He revised that opinion later, and then retroactively negated it. "As much as I was in that band, and I loved everything that we did, that's not music that I would listen to," he told Fader in his first solo cover story. "If I was sat at a dinner date with a girl, I would play some cool shit, you know what I mean? I want to make music that I think is cool shit."
It's a zinger that none of his former band mates have responded to. But set Made in the AM and Mind of Mine up next to each other and ask yourself, how much does coolness really pay off?