Simple Mines

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When you come from one of the biggest acts in modern pop, when you decide that such an existence has become too stale or too straining – has drifted altogether into a black hole of blind adoration and horrific obligations – there are two places in which you can go: 1) total obscurity, where you hide from the world in order to regain your sense of “normalcy” either through marriage, college, or both or 2) attempt to rebrand yourself as something beyond your bubblegum past and be taken seriously.  It is more often than not that one or two or three, or maybe even all members of a group will opt for the latter, wanting to keep fame and financial freedom at their own speed and with their own style.  But it is even more often than not that the success of those paths is quite dubious and intensely risky.

None of this is particularly unique to contemporary times, however.  From the advent of teen-pop in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, there were sensations that came blazing onto the scene just to burn out entirely soon after.  And during the most group-oriented periods of the 1960’s and 1970’s, many members branched out to “do their own thing” only to be forgotten about after a staled top 40 hit failed to capture any more steam able to guide them to the next plateau.  Part of this lies within the basic inner workings of the teen-pop machine, which does not adhere to long shelf-lives, preferring instead to milk as much in as little as possible without regard of quality or “timeliness.”  Another part of this, however, lies within the fact that such longevity in music does not lend itself dearly to that curiously strange species known as the male pop star.

As much as men seem to have greater ease in pursuing their artistic freedoms throughout the music world, the male pop star, in particular, seems to be one of the most thankless beings within our deified aural pantheon.  Unlike his rocker or rapper counterpart, his appeal relies primarily on his magnetic attraction and cosmic beauty, which, if perfectly coiffed and concocted, will contain a mixture of the most alluring attributes of what we perceive to be masculine and feminine.  What they are singing or what they are saying or even how they are speaking does not quite matter as much as their general mannequin-like expectation to simply look pretty and cause sheer panic.  Make no mistake, however: many male pop stars have elevated from these confines from Prince to Michael Jackson to David Bowie, perhaps the quintessential male pop star of all-time.  Many have been able to create careers that go beyond teenyboppers and bedroom posters, that stretch farther than thrown-panties and sneaking-past-security.  But when you are coming from a pop group such aspirations are almost quaint, if not entirely poignant in their creation.

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And such remained the case when Zayn Malik ditched the sinking One Direction ship and decided he’d become a solo artist in his own image.  As arguably the quietest and least “impressionable” member of the once-titanic once-fivesome, skepticism arrived in abundance of whether or not he could genuinely pull off any kind of movable music, much less an album full of it.  He was, after all, simply from a squeaky-clean boy band that was not renowned for their artistic breakthroughs nor their conventional tactics.  By-products of a post-NSYNC teen explosion, choreography and matching attire never properly entered the mindset of Zayn and his bandmates, which, in turn, only added to the confusion of his possibility of success as a solo star.  Yet none of that stopped him from doing what is perhaps the most fascinating pre-album campaign in the history of male pop stardom by appearing on high-art, cool-kid fashion magazines, instantly separating himself from the Tiger Beat origins he’d crawled away from.

Through these carefully-crafted photo shoots and equally curated interviews/think pieces, a blonde-buzz cut Zayn emerged as a budding style icon, utilizing the male pop star expectations of androgynous beauty (perhaps best exemplified by David Cassidy) and turning it upon its head through brightened, often quixotic adornments and anecdotes, that made him seem as if an aloof philosopher in love with himself and his drive.  Even before a sound of music was dropped to the clamoring public, he had crafted a persona not unlike that of the classic Method actors of the late-Hollywood era, whom brooded and wallowed with a sense of narcissism and amusement, whom seemed to be both animalistic and completely tamed, slick sexy cats laid out in the afternoon sunlight.  Far from the exuberant wigger-gloriousness of Justin Bieber, Zayn seemed almost classical, restrained, and contemplative – still teeming with massive youth but containing ambitions that calmed his impulse.

As it were, that creation of a new persona is almost more than half of the brilliance in a truly unique male pop star.  One can only think of how Justin Bieber’s own stylistic rise to fame paved the way for every shaggy-haired boy under 13 who could harmonize, yet that rampant emulation only created a rampant extinction.  And even in today’s world, dominated by the likes of Shawn Mendes and Charlie Puth, there seems to be a saddening lack of distinction over which face belongs to whom as, despite their successes, their personas have been awashed in beige realness.  But as Zayn attended fashion shows and explored his sexuality through the art of photography, he allowed himself to be exposed to those who had never once downloaded a One Direction track and, in return, became victorious in creating a solid foundation for the true main event of this mystification: the album itself.

Accompanied by a striking cover with a toddler-aged Zayn retroactively adorned with tattoos and whimsically entitled Mind of Mine, it presents itself on the surface as a very typical “independent” album from a former boy-bander, as if a deliberate call to freedom and liberation from the shackles of teen-pop.  And in some ways, perhaps it truly is such a work.  But to classify it so cheaply would be delineating its power of exploring the endless rhapsodies that arise from our deepest loves and darkest lusts.  Teeming with curiosity, magnificence, and passion, Mind of Mine must be one of the greatest solo debuts to have lurked within the confines of the pop genre, and especially the greatest solo debut for a male pop star of the decade.  Eschewing the kind of collection of weepy, tawdry romantic delusions which would mostly plague someone attempting to etch out their path for the first time, the album feels mature and complete, as if Zayn had previously made two or three works prior.  The coolly morose atmosphere, his playful inflections, the explorations of identity and heritage all seem so confident and so strident – so strong – that not one time does one ever think of where he came from or what he was once associated with.  In 46 minutes, Zayn seems as if reborn and renewed, absolved of previous “sins” and “deceit.”  He seems almost, in ways, immaculate from sheen.

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And yet, for the success of which lies critically within his album and the massive commercial peaks of which his one-and-only single “PILLOWTALK” has achieved, Zayn’s apathy remains his most potent trait.  He may not be entirely opposed to performing at venues and events, yet at the same time, he also does not seem enthusiastic in pushing his work out as often and as frequently as not only stars of his same sex but of any pop star period.  Instead, he seems quite comfortable with carousing with his supermodel girlfriend and showing up at things when he pleases, only furthering the difference between him, his contemporaries, and those whom came before him.  In true James Dean/Marlon Brando fashion, his attention does not lie deeply within the circle and cycle of fame, but rather on a more personalized idea of how such a machine can be run and decided.  He is, in some silly way, a rebel.  But even within that rebelliousness of sorts, one sees the comfort and calm of a millennial child wanting to be accepted for his musical creations.  One sees that spirit wanting their work to be appreciated for its abilities and its power.  The “part” of the male pop star does not interest him as it may others around him and this is most evident in the amount of time and attention taken on such a brilliant album.

It is that delightful mixture of disinterest and disaffection that makes Mind of Mine such a triumph.  Filled with lush lyricism, meandering fears, and electronic flourishes that often sound far more neurotic and pensive than they possibly should, Zayn has crafted something that feels uniquely his own, that does not seem as if it could be recorded or redone by anyone else – a rarity in the art of pop.  As he dips through late-90’s r&b, late-70’s soul, and the airtight ambiance of modern balladry,  one gets a sense of whom he is, what he likes, what he appreciates, without needing for him to prove it through startling performances or impressive affairs.  Through the diverse sounds and the quiet reflections, one understands him, one feels as if they might even know who he is.  Such is not easy in pop and certainly not easy for a male star, but somehow that ex-boy bander whom few hardly believed had it in him has created a work of art that is as urgent as it is passive – a darling mood piece containing atomic pathos.

And perhaps this surreal rollercoaster may not be his trajectory forever.  Perhaps he may fade away without a solid follow-up or create such a brilliant follow-up he’ll have to fade away.  But there is something about that marvelously silent charisma and that endlessly ravenous hunger of which Zayn exudes that makes me believe that even in his most unbelievable carelessness, he will always contain some kind of magnetic charge that keeps him afloat and seeking new adventures.  He will always contain some kind of magnetic charge that keeps him slightly above the fray.  That sort of thing does not simply just disappear and go away; if anything, it expands as far as it possibly can.

About Marsalis

poet of pop.
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22 Responses to Simple Mines

  1. MarlonBrando86 says:

    God, I ran here from Popjustice like an absolute idiot to read this and I regret nothing. I always live for your brilliant, beautifully-written and incisive thoughts on pretty much anything pop culture but I’m of course especially excited to read anything you say about Zayn.
    “The coolly morose atmosphere, his playful inflections, the explorations of identity and heritage all seem so confident and so strident – so strong – that not one time does one ever think of where he came from or what he was once associated with.” — I’ve been listening to the album the last few days after several weeks of not spinning it, and exactly this.

    It’s always odd to me that people don’t see his disinterest and disaffection with playing the role as a deliberate choice and preference on his part. It’s probably my favourite thing about him.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

    Like

  2. Shantie says:

    Beautiful article! Thank you!

    Like

  3. Zel says:

    Thank you for this brilliant and beautiful piece on Zayn’s underrated Mind of Mine. Zayn is an exceptional talent. The songs are raw, personal, and distinctive. The vocals are impressive and this album is massively misunderstood by most critics. Zayn deserves to win Grammys for this.

    Like

  4. alice says:

    It’s so refreshing to see someone write about Zayn’s art in such an intelligent, insightful and non-dismissive way. I really enjoyed reading this!

    Like

  5. Aaisma says:

    Thank you so much for such a brilliant think piece. I agree with every single thing you wrote. Zayn’s aura and charm is unlike any other. He had to stand out amongst his other pop counterparts, and the best thing is that he doesn’t even try. His fans understand what makes him comfortable and what doesn’t and we love him regardless. This was amazing, thank you again!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. jamde says:

    wow such a great article! thanks!

    Like

  7. Wow this is really nice, thanks for sharing.

    Like

  8. Laura says:

    Gosh what a great well written review. Agree with every word! Thank you very much for that article!

    Like

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Great article! Zayn Malik is very fascinating and interesting because he doesn’t follow the same route every other artist does. I don’t think a lot of people probably understand him especially the media and press so this piece of writing is very appreciated because it’s so in depth and certainly understands the approach Zayn is trying and wants for himself!

    Like

  10. Jenna says:

    I’d like to say that your insight and actual analysis of the album is beautiful. Your use of words and the way you completely get Zayn as an artist is very well done and thought-out. Thank you for this review. It was brilliant!!

    Like

  11. Eleanor says:

    Zayn is an amazing vocalist and talent. The music on Mind of Mine conveys a lot of dark truths about the pain, betrayal, and heartbreak he has experienced. There are a lot of profound revelations and deep layers to his album that I don’t think people recognize. He is the light of my life and I hope he can make his dreams come true. Sublime piece.

    Like

  12. Rose says:

    I enjoyed every second of reading this. Very few times have I come across a piece expressing even the most shallow understandings of Zayn, and never have I come across a piece that has been able to not only understand but also eloquently express and convey his trajectory as a solo artist. This is a very welcome breath of fresh air for which I thank you immensely.

    Like

  13. Ayana grace says:

    I love this review. As others have already stated there’s a dearth of music/art focus with most of zayns recent publicity. I hated seeing such a talented person reduced to a pr sideshow. I’m excited for zayns artistic future if his team can focus on music and giving zayn an actual voice (it’s working for beyonce!!!!!!) much love

    Like

  14. Kels says:

    Amazing and beautifully written article! Thank you!

    Like

  15. Ljp says:

    This album deserves more love than it’s getting. I feel like his next album should be even more raw and truthful. Let zayn be himself. We love him

    Like

  16. Jann says:

    swear this is the most clever, intellegent, and brilliant article I’ve ever read so far. his album is, no doubt, a masterpiece and really something else and grammy worthy. people cannot see how passionate Zayn about his very first album. not to mention that his vocal is so soft and too good to be ignored. everyone should read this to straighten their misunderstood about Zayn and MOM. thank you for sharing your thoughts about Zayn and his unappreciated album Mind Of Mine. I love reading this.

    Like

  17. Didi says:

    This is a beautifully written article about Zayn, and not just about his wonderful album.

    I love how you are also including,

    “But as Zayn attended fashion shows and explored his sexuality through the art of photography, he allowed himself to be exposed to those who had never once downloaded a One Direction track and, in return, became victorious in creating a solid foundation for the true main event of this mystification: the album itself.”

    He knows what he is doing, by branching out to the fashion world, his name would be noticed by general public who never even heard about his name. They would be curious about who he is, that would lead of course to his music. So, that is indeed a clever move.

    Thank you for a thoughtful think piece.
    This is my favorite article to read.

    Like

  18. AZ says:

    The songs on “Mind of Mine” touches upon a number of important issues and experiences relevant to Zayn’s life. Zayn is a versatile vocalist and this was showcased across different songs, as he effortlessly adapts his voice to match the mood of each song. However, what impressed me the most was his songwriting skills. The ability to convey a vast array of emotions in a subtle manner (including conflicting emotions within a song), is no mean feat and avoided the overall album from sounding melodramatic or underwhelming. Overall, “Mind of Mine” is an outstanding debut album with a collection of consistently good songs.

    This review perfectly captures what Zayn is all about. It is an utter shame how some people will automatically overlook Zayn as a credible artist and dismiss his work for inane reasons. In the future, I hope Zayn gets the opportunity to collaborate with a variety of talented musicians/songwriters in the industry, and feels comfortable enough to branch out and experiment further. Zayn has a lot of potential and will excel at whatever he decides to dabble in, but he just needs to develop more confidence as I believe he is still holding back. He shouldn’t underestimate his capabilities. In time, I am certain Zayn will evolve into an individual with a strong sense of self, who will have full command over the powerhouse voice that accompanies his identity. “Mind of Mine” reflects a transitional period of his life, where he was still finding himself, and re-discovering who he has become, after a series of life-changing experiences. Potentially, Zayn could be a groundbreaking pioneer and I am eager to hear what he has to offer in his next album.

    Like

  19. Cassy says:

    wow what a way with words! This was so enticing; fabulous review. I really do hope Zayn is a talent that will gift us with more wonderfully artistic albums.

    Like

  20. kris says:

    Thank you, thank you , thank you. This is beautiful and eloquent .

    Like

  21. Mary says:

    I love this! You have obviously observed and studied him well. Thank you for this piece.

    Like

  22. Natalie says:

    I really enjoyed this piece. It is a far cry from those dismissive reviews which merely focus on Zayn through the songs that are listful and who they must be about. There’s not enough attention on Zayn himself as the media usually points out why and how a song links to a certain female or if he’s shading his band mates and it’s never about how genuiebly beautiful and progressive this album and his music type is. Every single aspect of Mind Of Mine is a masterpiece from the swoon worthy vocals on drunk to the almost haunting allure of truth, they all reflect aspects of Zayn’s life that may not actually be about anyone in particular. He’s a well educated, intelligent man who has travelled the world, experienced so much in the almost prison like grasps of a swirly clean boyband image, his experiences derive from a lot more than some over publicised Twitter tiff that several reviews focused primarily on rather than the fine attributes of Zayn’s music. The allure of the vast range of songs and the bittersweet ending upon the deluxe album through she don’t love me expressed what life is truly about. Life is not just one up beat dance worthy like I would, it’s filled with disappointments and low times. As he expressed himself once ‘you are not gonna be happy 100% of the time’ and you can clearly tell that in his album. An album full of snapshots of life at its good and at its worst. Zayn’s vocals need more recognition as there are few artists who can sing with as much power and passion as he can, he was often the highly emotive edge to one direction’s music and now the powerhouse to his own kind. Perhaps my highlight of the deluxe album is the intermission flower, as a sunning piece sung all in Urdu it’s a rebellious move in my belief. Zayn’s always had a hard time for being a POC and a Muslim and to be able to write a piece which is so heartfelt in your native tongue ( it was dismissed by many for being boring but brought tears to many people like Zayn from south Asian decent who only have a portal of representation trough him) was so refreshing. It’s almost like ‘insult me for what I am but it only makes me prouder of my brown skin’. Truly touching. I know Zayn will be effortless and graceful no matter what, he’s got an allure hat no one else will ever have no matter what any tabloid has splayed all over its front page, he’s got a genuine passion and compassion that his previous label and management ignored and imposed a dark horse image of him which he clearly raged against on lucozade. Overall a truly wonderful review of a truly Grammy worthy and star studded album. Well done Zayn.

    Like

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