Being Zayn Malik: A Mind (and a Solo Album) of His Own


Last Friday marked not one but two milestones: It was the first anniversary of Zayn Malik’s departure from One Direction, the boyband that made him famous. It also witnessed the release of his eagerly anticipated solo debut, Mind of Mine — note the aptness of the title.

I listened to Zayn’s album with my father as we drove through Al Ain, a small city in Abu Dhabi. “Mind of Mine,” the first track, feels like a fragmented Bollywood tune, a force that carries us into the album. Soon we’re at “It’s You” and sand drips in through my window as Zayn hums, coolly, And I can’t tell you why/Because my brain can’t equate it.

I’ve always related to Zayn. I hold three passports, and my parents live in two separate countries. I am Muslim, but I am also a Westerner. I often wonder if there is room for me in this world. Listening to Zayn has meant hearing all my dimensions — the Muslim, the South Asian, the White, the Western-born and –brought up. Sometimes in cultural dialogues I have felt isolated, as nobody quite represents all of me. But Zayn feels like mine.

The eerie melody of “It’s You” is also a soft one. We pass by drooping palm trees, lush with baby dates, cascading like half-moons as we careen down the road. I feel at home, but only the way a transient alien would. Playing the album another day as I walk, the vibrato of Zayn’s voice over the last few chords makes me dizzy. I hum I don’t know why with a croak in my throat, watching the flowing abayas swish past me, making contact with kohl-lined eyes and smiling lashes. The song is a ballad, but without the coiffed veneer of One Direction. It’s ominous, self-reflective, and it puts Zayn in a different league of pop.

Mind of Mine is a mature feat for our 23-year-old larka gulokar. The first ten songs of the album feel compact, built with exaltations of love and passion. There’s a sinuous vein that feels exact, unstressed, the themes languid yet composed. The songs after that are a more palpable ode to Zayn’s personal musical tastes — r&b. If the record’s first half is emblematic of his artistic journey so far, the second reaffirms his dedication to the music that nurtured him.

Four songs in, the album begins to feel inescapably honest: the candid metronome, his falsetto on the line Time for me to move on, from “BeFour.” Then we hit a wall of cacophony; “Drunk,” with its line Intoxicated it’s true/When I’m with you (allusions to alcohol and love abound in Islamic poetry), followed by the grand mastery of “Intermission: Flower” — a short song, almost like a psalm, sung only in Urdu.

On “Lucozade,” Zayn sings, Time heals pain and promotes self-soothin’/When the scars are gone you can’t see bruisin’. This is why he moves me. It’s not his jarring looks or cool appeal. It’s because he lets me accept my peculiarities. Seems like you probably got a dope mind/But it’s gotta be the right time.

My father and I stop and park outside an abandoned dirt lot as we hit the guitar strumming of “Flower,” fragile and sweet. Zayn’s voice, transformed into a mellifluous Urdu melody, redirects my pulse entirely. Jab tak ish mohabbat kha phool na Khile (“Until the flower of this love has blossomed”)/Jab tak ish dil ko sukhoon na mile (“Until this heart has been satisfied”)/Dil diye mujhe (“Just keep on giving your heart”). Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the renowned grandfather of the 600-year-old qawwali tradition (a form of devotion practiced by Sufi Muslims), rings softly in my ear like a musical ghost. There is something strongly spiritual in Zayn’s music, and both Zayn and Nusrat are Pakistani sons.

In the car, my father and I listen to this album that feels like a confessional. “Rear View,” a favorite, sounds like it could be the theme song for a Mira Nair film, while “Do Something Go” feels more in the vein of Iñárritu. Although there’s a universality, a diversity to his artistry, it leaves me thinking how easy it is to feel like Zayn belongs to me — just me. There will always be a plethora of white kids churning out music. Will there ever be another Zayn?