Having a mind of his own

Singer Zayn Malik inserts a love song in Urdu in a contemporary R&B album.
Singer Zayn Malik inserts a love song in Urdu in a contemporary R&B album.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In former One Direction member Zayn Malik's album Mind Of Mine, the singer is eager to reclaim parts of himself

NEW YORK • Some of the most impassioned vocals on Mind Of Mine, the solo debut of the One Direction dissident Zayn Malik, come on a modest mid-album interlude called Flower.

The producer Malay plays a gentle folk-influenced guitar figure and Malik exhales deeply atop it and then begins singing with deeply centred but controlled fervour, "Until the flower of this love has blossomed/Until this heart is at peace." Then, three times, he pleads: "Give me your heart."

Flower is the most plainly besotted song on this album. It is also sung in Urdu, the native language of Malik's father. (The lyrics above are a rough translation.)

That Malik has inserted a 104second Urdu love song into the middle of his album of sweaty, smooth R&B is a wink and also a feint - a quick, restrained nod to those in the know, who have been following him for years, that he has not forgotten his past as a Muslim R&Binclined singer trying to operate with dignity in the unforgiving, often choppy waters of pop's mainstream.

From 2010 to last year, he was part of the borg that was One Direction, perhaps the first post-modern boyband, but not one so disruptive that it allowed Malik to breathe. He was the band's only non-white member - his father is of Pakistani descent - and also the one with the most evident interest in breaking loose from the group's relentless big-tent pop.

Mind Of Mine (RCA), released last Friday, shows a singer eager to reclaim the parts of himself that five years in the pop klieg lights forced into the shadows.

What is most striking about it is Malik's vocal cool. He is a loose singer who achieves a lot without much power.

ON PILLOWTALK, Mind Of Mine's first full song and first single, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 last month

One Direction were always far more of a social proposition than a musical one. The group's selling point was their rambunctiousness and how the members were ill equipped for traditional choreographed boyband manoeuvres. Often the members looked lost onstage - in Malik's case, sometimes the sentiment verged closer to frustration. (His hostility to boyband cheer dated back to the X Factor auditions that brought One Direction together, when he walked out of a dance choreography session.)

Along with Harry Styles, Malik was the most signature voice in the group, but it was deployed only in short bursts. Any difference he wanted to display musically was sandpapered down. Nevertheless, thanks to One Direction's huge success, he became one of the most visible pop stars of Asian descent working outside Asia.

Sometimes he embraced it - he speaks Urdu and a short clip of him saying "I love you" in Urdu early in his One Direction years has almost half a million views on YouTube. And in 2014, he tweeted "#FreePalestine", a young celebrity testing the political waters. But that tweet was met with death threats and he has been more or less silent since then.

Even when he won the award for outstanding achievement in music at the Asian Awards last year, he did not use his speech for anything more revealing than to thank his parents "for making me Asian and for allowing me to have some sort of effect on the Asian community". In interviews, when asked about his heritage or about being Muslim, he swats the questions away, in some combination of superstar cool and extreme pragmatism: He has a pulpit, but he does not seem eager to use it.

Mind Of Mine is, in part, a contemporary R&B album. But there is also a familiar British restraint to Malik's soul music: His singing is more certain than ever, but it has largely soft edges and often it is buried somewhat low in the mix as if it were of secondary importance to the sound. Which perhaps it is, because Mind Of Mine is also, quietly, the product of someone fluent in pop mechanics.

All that comes into play on Pillowtalk, the album's first full song and first single, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 last month. It is purposefully grand, with swelling rock-friendly production. What is most striking about it is Malik's vocal cool. He is a loose singer who achieves a lot without much power.

The last time he was heard outside of the context of One Direction was in 2010, in his X Factor audition and in a handful of amateur videos that still survive online. In them, he is young. His voice is feeble. But his instincts are clear: He is a teenager obsessed with sweet R&B - songs such as Mario's Let Me Love You, Chris Brown's With You and Ne-Yo's So Sick.

Back then, he did not have the power or the subtlety to invest those performances with real authority, but a side benefit of five years of pop megafame is the P90X workout it affords your voice.

So he must have been thrilled at the opportunity to appear on the remix of Brown's recent vibrant single Back To Sleep, which also features Usher - an invitation into the elite fraternity after years peering in from the outside. (Brown and Malik share a record label.) He does not waste the moment. This is his crispest singing, hungrier than anything on his album.

He starts out cool and reserved, then begins smearing out words with swagger: "Letsss notttt gettttt emotionalllll/Let's be who we arrrrrrre." A couple of lines later, he is cramming syllables together: "Knowitsbeen a long day, itsbouttobe a long night." In places, he deploys a touch of melisma - not as much as Brown or Usher, but more in one verse than in perhaps all of the One Direction catalogue.

This performance showcases Malik the bedroom R&B singer in a way that nothing on Mind Of Mine quite does. He sounds cocksure, unburdened.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2016, with the headline 'Having a mind of his own'. Print Edition | Subscribe