Instances of former teen idols taking confident steps into the pop spotlight are rare, but worth celebrating — and they often involve the channeling of R&B in its many forms. Janet Jackson’s 1986 full-length, “Control,” which opens with the lyric “When I was 17, I did what people told me,” established the child actress as a take-no-prisoners pop force. A year later, George Michael’s “Faith,” his first solo album after hitting it big with the blue-eyed soul duo Wham!, arrived, a slick collection that showed off his bottomless love for soul music. Justin Timberlake, with the help of the beat tinkerer Timbaland, pushed R&B further into the electronic age on 2006’s “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” his second solo album following the breakup of ’N Sync.
More recently, Nick and Joe Jonas, formerly bandmates in the Jonas Brothers, have made inroads into top-40 playlists with tight tracks that emphasize funk on the low end and impassioned vocals up top. And now comes British singer Zayn Malik, who was 17 when he competed on the seventh season of “The X Factor,” the Simon Cowell TV project that eventually placed him in his band, One Direction. Malik grew up on the road and in public. One Direction became a global sensation with a fervent fanbase almost as soon as they were formed; Malik’s stardom shot into the stratosphere, although he was persistently dogged by rumors that he was not all too fond of fame.
In March 2015, Malik left One Direction, forcing the group to soldier on as a quartet. “I am leaving because I want to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight,” he said in a statement at the time. But photos soon cropped up of him working in the studio with producers like the British garage DJ Naughty Boy, offering assurance that he would still be a pop star of some sort — though on his own.
This Friday, a year to the day after Malik’s resignation, marks the appearance of “Mind of Mine” (RCA) — credited, simply, to Zayn. It borrows heavily from current R&B trends to make the point that the artist has grown; he’s older than the cheeky tattooed youngster on the cover, and he’s over One Direction’s sometimes-frenetic, sometimes-reverent pop. Instead, the realms Malik is working in are those inhabited by some of music’s biggest and most creative artists — the chart-topping, bummer-riding Torontonian The Weeknd, the reclusive Frank Ocean, and the California-bred polymath Miguel.
“Pillowtalk,” the album’s first single, is lush and grandiose. Fluffy beats and aggressively sensual lyrics give way to a massive, world-opening chorus that, oh yeah, happens to include an f-bomb. “It is about sex — there is obviously sex in a relationship,” he told New York radio host Elvis Duran shortly after its release, when the peanut gallery was fanning itself over its provocative lyrics. “It’s not the whole incentive of the song, though,” he said, adding that it was really about a relationship’s ups and downs. This wouldn’t be the first time that lascivious content distracted an audience from an artist’s true intent, of course, but Malik’s protests did seem a bit disingenuous; the way in which he vocally emphasized the song’s naughtiest word, nearly spitting it out, sounded like a rebuke to his past as well as a guaranteed talking point about his “growing up.”
“Pillowtalk” sailed to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 instantly, making it a success as a pop song. Yet as a statement of purpose, the song — styled, on “Mind of Mine,” as “PiLlOwT4lK”—feels a little like a kid playing dress-up in adult clothing. And this isn’t the only instance on the album where Zayn’s attempts to assert himself as an adult come off as, well, childish. “BeFoUr” is humming soul-pop crafted for a night out; Zayn’s growl sounds like Robin Thicke’s on the verses, and an ambulance-siren effect on the chorus adds a bit of delicious tension. But the lyrics are full of empty imagery about experimentation. Elsewhere on “Mind of Mine,” references to sex, drugs, and other talismans of rebellion again stand in for maturity.
“Mind of Mine” does have a couple of genuinely lovely sounding songs, as well as many that set a wee-hours mood. “tRuTh” floats along on a lazily strummed guitar and buried-in-reverb drum machine beats, with Zayn aiming his sneer at those who have crossed him in the past; “lUcOzAdE,” named after an energy drink, places Zayn’s voice above Quiet Storm synths and paranoia-inducing effects. But Zayn sounds tentative when he’s venturing into lyrical territory beyond his former band’s purview, which compromises the album’s clearly wide-ranging aims.
Is it possible, in the hothouse atmosphere of 2016, for artists to fully rebrand themselves — for boy banders to become man pop stars? Social media’s high-speed processing of celebrities preserves them in amber — from Lindsay Lohan’s “Mean Girls” one-liners, forever passed around in GIF form, to the recent reboots of “Full House” — and that makes it more difficult than it has been. The brooding “Mind of Mine” is clearly an attempt to break free, and there are hints of Zayn’s solo-artist potential scattered throughout. But in order to truly tap his talent, he’ll need to shed the trappings of his past and embrace adulthood without reservation.Maura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.