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Zayn: A Mind of Mine Reaction Roundtable

Meet the new Zayn, very much not the same as the old Zayn

By Molly Beauchemin, Hazel Cills, Anne T. Donahue, Jessica Hopper, Molly Lambert, Brodie Lancaster, Ira Madison III, David Turner, and Simon Vozick-Levinson

Vozick-Levinson: It's finally here: Zayn and his mind (of his) are free, solo, cruising at high altitudes, using curse words and nontraditional capitalization techniques whenever he damn pleases. He's as bad as he wanna be, and he has a very nice falsetto. I could have an opinion, but that's my opinion. How about everyone else?

Hopper: My initial thought is that for sensual teen-bait, this seems most properly conceived for adult people who don’t like anything more dynamic than, say, Muse, but def appreciate a Trey Songz–grade eroticism as a baseline in their pop. Who is this album for? The whole wide world, because he is engineered for our pleasure. I have had “Pillowtalk” stuck in my head for days, much to my chagrin, but I am fully here for this, in spite of the wannabe Nuno Bettencourt guitar solos on “iT’s YoU”. It’s so mellow. When he promised this album would be “very sexual,” I think he meant "postcoital." Or maybe he was just referencing the cover.

Lambert: I have “Pillowtalk” in my head constantly and it’s a paradise and it’s a war zone.

Madison III: Zayn sounds a lot like Let's Get Lifted–era John Legend (all over but specifically on "lUcOzAdE"). And that album used to possess me like the Holy Ghost looking for a sinner, so when I tell you I am feeling this pop neo-soul vibe Zayn is delivering, I am really feeling it. I mean it's kinda one-note, but you can light a J and drink Cryst-all to this.

Donahue: As a lifetime devotee of all things boy band, I love this even more than I do Justin Timberlake’s Justified – which I remember my friends and me cranking back in high school and losing it over how adult it seemed. I think what Zayn’s doing completely eclipses that. Not just because he’s singing about such overtly adult and/or sexual subject matter, but because he’s made universally digestible tracks like “Pillowtalk” and “Like I Would.” He’s appealing to those who subscribe to current Top 40 norms (like, his vocal urgency reminds me of The Weeknd -- in a good way) and he’s appealing to Directioners by offering us an album that’s a marked departure from 1D. And, seriously, “iT’s YoU” is like the high note from “You and I” but on steroids.

Madison III: Maybe it's the nostalgia, maybe my pop sensibilities lead more toward Neptunes whistles, but as much as I enjoy this album, it's in no danger of dethroning Justified for me. This is a departure from 1D, but it's still in the same realm. It's not dance pop, it's chill pop, and it needs more bangers like "Like I Would" to be in the Timberlake realm (who himself was trying to be Michael Jackson, and MJ would never release such a stoner album).

Beauchemin: Something that is so weird for me is the Justin Timberlake corollary -- but for somewhat different reasons. I am just slightly older than Zayn, so listening to this kind of “he won’t touch you like I do” lyricism from someone I can acknowledge as very attractive but younger than me is super-weird. I’m hit with the same curiosity that Jessica nodded to above: “Who is this album for?” When I was listening to Justin Timberlake in middle school, I was aspiring to adulthood (real or imagined). Now I’m hearing a lot of the same rhetoric from someone younger than me, which is an interesting personal complication. I think contemporary pop music is finally being engineered for an audience more broad than the teen girl demographic, which has historically been the core patronage when it comes to boy bands and boy band affiliates. So seeing how, like, random dudes receive this record will be interesting. There’s a jokey meme circulating out there about “Justin Bieber Fans in 2008 vs. Justin Bieber Fans in 2015,” after Purpose came out. The former picture is a gaggle of 10-year-old girls and the latter is a bunch of bro-y millennial dudes. If many of these songs are clearly targeted at women, how are they sounding to the guys on this thread?

Hopper: There is something very young to me when the singing about fucking is not especially nuanced and includes the word “fuck” a lot. To me, this is more Miley playbook than Bieber path. He’s nuking the space between him and 1D by broadcasting his closing proximity on Hadidian vag.

Donahue: I will say, there is something super-removed about the “I have the sex!” disclaimer seemingly attached to every song. Like, I’m not listening to his music thinking, “Yes, this is sexy music.” More, “This is music about Zayn having sex.” Which isn’t sexy because I’m a grown-ass woman and he’s our wee baby boy. So there’s, for sure, that distinction. But true: How do guys feel about Zayn? Also: Is Zayn the anti-Bieber? Like, I almost feel like where Bieber wants us to like him, Zayn… doesn’t?

Cills: Something that I did not realize about Purpose until now, listening to Mind of Mine, is that Bieber managed to make a very asexual transition into adult pop territory! I mean, how sexy does that album get? “We can keep each other company” feels like about it. Of course, Purpose was explicitly about loss and redemption – it was essentially a breakup album. So I don’t know if Bieber is necessarily the anti-Zayn. Maybe he was just at a much different point in his life when he made his transitional pop record, i.e., deeply obsessed with his own sorrow.

Lambert: When it became apparent that Zayn was going to be a thing in America, I was excited because while I missed the 1D wave, I still knew that Zayn was the hottest, possibly most talented one. That Fader cover with the glass of orange juice? I was so ready for a cold, refreshing glass of Zayn. So I’m disappointed that this mostly sounds like lukewarm Weeknd, because I was expecting something more novel? Or at least more uptempo? But I understand why Zayn wanted to make a whole album about fucking. After spending years trapped in One Direction singing about puppy love, he’s finally free to get freaky and grow a sex beard. “Intermission: Flower,” the halfway point half-a-song he sings in Urdu, is my favorite part of the album – the part that most feels like you’re listening to Zayn blossoming into a solo artist.

Hopper: I agree: The song has character that feels distinctly him. Though my greatest disappointment with this album is that “Flower” wasn’t a cover of the Liz Phair song. If he really wanted to show the world what a freak he is, that would have been an amazing way to go about it.

Lancaster: “Flower” is such a high point for me, too, Molly. Zayn has sometimes seemed hesitant to speak openly about his culture in the past (and when you saw the responses he got to tweeting #freepalestine a few years ago, you can understand why). Hearing him singing like a goddamn angel in Urdu is heart-bursting.

Cills: Agree, Molly, on “lukewarm Weeknd” vibe. It’s really hard for me to listen to this and not think of Beauty Behind the Madness, which is like Mind of Mine’s cooler older sibling.

Vozick-Levinson: I like Zayn best when he's trying least to impress us with what a rebel he is. "She" and "Rear View" – I'm sorry, "sHe" and "rEaR vIeW" – are grown, confident, polished pop/R&B grooves that sound like a nice two-beer buzz feels. "dRuNk" is the one where he keeps grabbing us by the shoulder and telling us how wasted he is. Cool story, Z! That said, I love "lUcOzAdE," which is probably the album's most ridiculously try-hard moment of faux edginess ("Ever sipped a refreshing sports drink… on weed?"), and close runner-up "Pillowtalk" has wormed its way right into my brain after about two months of airplay. Fine, Zayn, you win. I like your goofy album.

Donahue: “dRuNk” literally made me say “OK, relax” out loud at my desk.

Lambert: Did you hear that he wants to get drunk all summer?

Lancaster: Recently, a friend asked me if I liked records like Purpose and The Life of Pablo because I liked the people who made them, and I told him that, to understand what the music was about, I had to have at least a passing understanding of who Justin Bieber and Kanye West are and what their music is responding to. Zayn takes that idea and blows it up. It’s impossible to listen to it without bringing 1D baggage to the party. I can’t tell yet if it’s to my detriment or Zayn’s that I hear a song like “dRuNk” and think it’s the E! True Hollywood Story version of One Direction’s “Summer Love,” just as “She Don’t Love Me” is the straight-talking “She’s Not Afraid.” He’s talking about fucking – and saying the word "fuck" a bunch – where in the past he could only make intimations. But getting an Explicit Content symbol next to a track doesn’t equate to musical growth.

As a twentysomething 1D fan, I should be precisely in this record’s key audience – I love li’l introverted singers from England! I drink Lucozade when I’m dehydrated! – but I can’t picture myself returning to more than a handful of these tracks more than once. They all blend into one horny smokescreen, and the only moments I can come up for air are on “Like I Would,” “She Don’t Love Me,” and “fOoL fOr YoU.” Like Jessica, I’m left wondering: Who are the young men who, as Zayn inferred, would listen to this when they’re trying to get laid as opposed to something uncool like One Direction? I feel like the only person this record was made to appeal to was Zayn himself, and to do that the only criteria it needed to meet was to not be a boy-band record.

Donahue: Brodie, that’s so real. Like, after seeing Snapchats of Kanye losing it at the J-Biebs concert, I just don’t think I can see him (or any adult man) doing the same at a Zayn show. I think that’s because Justin seems like he’s having fun. But then you hear tracks like “sHe,” and they sound like the background music for a too-cool guys’ night out. Mind of Mine seems super-smooth and super-suave and super-serious. It’s kind of like the musical equivalent of going away to college after high school and coming back home at Thanksgiving with a very hip haircut and a lot of tattoos. But I’m also conflicted because I do like it. Like, when the beat drops in “BoRdErSz”? It makes me want to hang out with my friends, get ready all together, and then go out à la first year. So: It makes me feel the way I thought adulthood was like when I wasn’t quite an adult yet. Which is kind of the name of Zayn’s game with this record. Not a boy, not yet a man.

Madison III: That's exactly what I was getting at, Anne. I can't get turnt to Zayn's music in the way that I can to "Rock Your Body." But damned if I don't start a seductive li’l pop whenever that beat hits in "BoRdErZ." Being gay, there's something in the male pop star aesthetic that appeals to me -- I can see young men putting this album on to get laid if they're trying to seduce another guy. But Zayn doesn't quite have the overt sexiness a straight guy would seem to gravitate toward. It's more of a college freshman cast in their first black-box production of an Ibsen play, trying to convey a myriad of adult emotions while also afraid the audience can tell that they're unseasoned. That's basically what it's like to be gay in your 20s, so I would've had this album on repeat all through college. But because I like Zayn as a person, because I've followed his narrative, I enjoy the album and I'm rooting for him. And I love "dRuNk" – it sounds like a Ghost Town DJ's song, and when he embraces syrupy ’90s R&B I see hints of an identity that will realize itself soon enough.

Cills: I don’t know if I agree with Brodie’s point that this album is intended to appeal to just Zayn. Listening to this, it’s clear that it’s not necessarily going to land with the adult crowd, to echo Ira’s great image of Zayn as a college freshman. But it’s also pretty clear to me who this record is for: teens, young women, literally anyone who is attracted to Zayn. For me he’s not making a huge jump to grab an adult crowd, he’s just following where his audience has naturally gone. One Direction’s young fans have aged with the band as well – many of them are undoubtedly exploring sEx and getting dRuNk for the first time too – and a lot of these songs still possess that quintessential One Direction “singing right to YOU, yes, you, girl” feel, especially on “iT’s YoU” and “fOoL fOr YoU.” Even “sHe,” which is by far my favorite song on this album, toys with this lonely girl imagery, with Zayn as savior. Mind of Mine, chock-full of “this is like a movie scene” references, is very fantasy-driven, all bright club lights and “let’s break down all the walls” romance. For an adult, the “I have sex!” disclaimer Anne mentioned before might seem off-putting, but for a 16-year-old girl I think it’s something that might pull her in. I love how Zayn sings, “You’re a freak like me / Can’t you see?” in the album’s final song, "TiO." I can’t help but think he’s talking to the girls who’ve followed his PG music for years.

Madison III: Zayn is this generation's Adina Howard.

Hopper: Yes. The Weeknd-album-for-daylight-hours vibe is actually what does it for me here.

Turner: The first time I heard “Pillowtalk,” I kept thinking that if I was a teen I’d like it on the 14th listen, not the 1st. Mind of Mine overall elicits a similar response: I'd probably grow to enjoy Zayn’s Weeknd-lite stylings at some point, if not for the fact I’m not a teen and there is so much else I’d rather devote my life toward. Maybe I’m just not over the fact that the Fader cover was such a perfect encapsulation of post–boy band life that I needed all of these songs to be “Cry Me a River” good. “TiO” is fun and “Like I Would," though a bonus track, is pretty great. I hoped for more exciting pop, but that was probably my own misplaced expectations. One Direction were a dad-rock band sans guitars, not a genre-pushing collective, so Zayn’s conservatism shouldn’t be too shocking.

Madison III: That probably hits the nail on the head. Zayn wasn't coming from NSYNC, so we shouldn't expect Justin Timberlake bangers here. My favorite One Direction album is Midnight Memories, and that's an ’80s stadium-rock album if I've ever heard one. I imagine it's what people must love about Bruce Springsteen. And if there was an ’80s band whose entire vibe was Bruce Springsteen, you're not going to get club hits when you diverge from that.

Vozick-Levinson: C'mon, Ira, if anyone's on their Springsteen right now we know it's Justin. I personally can't wait for Zayn's Nebraska.

Lancaster: I’m with you on that, David! I feel like I’d have very different things to say about this record if I were writing this in a month or a year after the tracks have percolated a little more and I’ve heard the more up-tempo tracks in The Club. Ultimately, what Zayn is doing here is exploring his alternative to the constructed pop that One Direction are so great at — they make dad rock for not-dads, but they’re not pushing any boundaries or doing anything he perceives as being cool in the process.

Which brings me to something I’ve been holding in for a lot of years that I need to I admit right now: I do not think Zayn is cool. He is beautiful and sensitive and angelic and I have not one but two posters of his Fader cover hanging in my house, but I would not, for example, watch a movie he recommended to me. I have seen his graffiti art and the video where he smokes a joint and talks about how 1D’s merch would be cooler if it were more like Kid Rock’s; I have watched the interview where he shuts down one of his former band members for claiming they wear Gucci aftershave when that’s his scent of choice. I think he views himself as an outsider, a disrupter who wears shirts with the word TRUTH printed across them and has a massive tattoo of a snake whose tail wraps around his tattoo of an astronaut monkey (located next to the tattoo of his former fiancée wearing a t-shirt with a peace sign on it) — which totally fits with the ~college freshman Zayn~ idea Ira mentioned. (Which, side note, is also a staple of some really excellent 1D fanfic. HMU if you need a link.) I think it will be interesting to see how he responds (or if he does) to any criticisms of his solo work. One Direction were largely protected by the machine, and any criticisms were just white noise drowned out by the overwhelming hype and adoration they received. He’s been so critical of the work he made with 1D, and hasn’t had to take any responsibility for any of it. The same won’t be true now that he’s broken out on his own.