After Zayn Malik left One Direction to strike out on his own, he didn't rush out a record to take advantage of his fame; he took his time getting his sound together. His first solo record, Mind of Mine, was carefully crafted over a long period with the invaluable help of Frank Ocean collaborator Malay and goes for a much more adult, modern R&B feel than anything he'd done with One D. Most of the album revolves around sex, drugs, and sex while doing drugs -- pretty typical pursuits for a wealthy guy in his early twenties, especially one feeling his freedom for the first time. The sound of the album is rich and layered with synths, rubbery basslines, and occasional electric guitars, not too far from the sound of Miguel or the Weeknd. Like them, he digs deeply into slow, sensual ballads and basically buries himself there like it was a big, fluffy blanket perfect for a midnight rendezvous. Songs like "dRuNk" and "SHe" hit the sweet spot between romantic and debauched; others like "PILLOWTALK" tip toward the latter. While most of the album sticks close to lights-low, make-out territory, there are a few outliers, like the tender piano ballad "fOol fOr YoU," which comes closest to the wholesome boy band sound he was so desperate to break free of. It's a pretty good version of that sound, though. A couple tracks break free of the ballad haze and bump the energy level up a little: "BeFoUr" is a nice midtempo disco-influenced track that sounds like something Justin Timberlake might have done at one point; "lUcOzAdE" is a gently bouncing track with an on-point synth game.
While the songs are mostly strong and it all sounds very slick and state of the art, the highlight is Zayn's voice. After Harry's hair, his vocals were arguably the best thing about his former band and it's a treat to hear him on his own, with nobody else hogging the spotlight. His soaring falsetto on "iT's YoU" is breathtaking, the insistent approach of the more intense songs like "PILLOWTALK" is a welcome development, and the brief snippet of him singing beautifully in Urdu on "INTERMISSION: fLoWer" is a lovely nod to his background. His vocal skills help pave over the (rare) moments when the lyrics seem a bit juvenile or the sound feels a little too familiar, and help make Mind of Mine an impressive debut. It's music he couldn't have made with One Direction and while it may not be breaking any new ground, it's new for him and he's talented enough to make that interesting for anyone who likes well-made pop music. [The Deluxe Edition of the album adds four songs to the already long track list. Two of them are smooth ballads, slightly less interesting than those that made the cut. The other two songs would have been nice additions to the actual album. "SHE DON'T LOVE ME" has a snaky beat and a level of passion set just below boiling; "LIKE I WOULD" sets aside the slo-mo R&B in favor of a bubbling dance-pop sound. Either one would have given the record a nice boost of energy, and they make this edition worth seeking out.] ~ Tim Sendra