This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
Zayn Malik, formerly 1/5th of fresh-faced, bright-eyed, mop-top boyband One Direction, made chart history this week. He “did the double”—simultaneously holding the number one spot on the UK Album Chart and the Billboard 200—and became the first British male solo artist to have an album debut at number one in the USA. Somewhere in the distance, if you listen very carefully, Harry Styles is screaming “it should have been me!” into the night.
On the surface, this looks like a victory, but if you strain your eyes to look at the small print, the sales tell a completely different story. Mind of Mine is reported to have sold around 23k copies in the UK and 112k copies in the US, a fraction of the numbers Zayn enjoyed as part of One Direction. Compared to his main rival, Justin Bieber—whose comeback at the end of 2015 led to an unprecedented chart dominance in which he had to publicly ask the British public to stop listening to him so the NHS could get one over on Jeremy Hunt—Zayn’s numbers are an insignificant blip on the upper-echelon of chart history. While the Bieber record has held steady in the top 5 on both sides of the pond since its release in November, Zayn is forecast to drop out of the Top 10 within a week.
Mind of Mine is a solid debut album, but it isn’t groundbreaking or special. Each song bleeds into the next, making for a cohesive body of work, but with no real moments aside from the beautiful “Flower” which is striking because it is sung in Urdu. And while debut single “Pillow Talk” is decent, it is no “Faith“ (George Michael), no “Angels“ (Robbie Williams), no “Cry Me A River“ (Justin Timberlake). There is nothing to support the narrative the media have been guilty of projecting onto Zayn—that he is the next in an illustrious line of ex-boyband members to shave his head and prove he can stand-alone. Yet prior to the release of Mind of Mine, all signs pointed to Zayn either matching Bieber, or at least giving him a run for his money. So how did he end up falling so short?
It is that narrative, a blend of marketing and PR, that underpins the commercial underperformance of this album. From Zayn’s “first look” after leaving One Direction—a cover shoot and interview with “cool press” magazine The Fader to his only on-camera interview of the campaign with Zane Lowe for Beats 1 to appearances in release week on Jimmy Fallon and on the covers of Complex and NME, the promotion for Mind of Mine has been what the industry, writhing in its own pretentious bollocks, call “positioning.” Where Justin Bieber pushed his crossover record Purpose by forcing tastemaker press into playing catch up and admitting to being Beliebers, Zayn has actively courted coverage that, to the exclusion of all else, has tried to force the idea that he is an authentic R&B artist who can appeal to an audience outside of teenage girls. In doing so, these sales figures illuminate the fact that despite there being millions of Directioners worldwide, only a tiny proportion of them ended up supporting Zayn as a solo artist. Did they refuse to show out for him? Or was it the other way round?
Completely freezing out a market that is inclined to support you is a bold strategy. But it’s an especially adventurous move if you don’t yet have the artistry to back it up. While The Neptunes and Timbaland, the main architects of Timberlake’s Justified, were notorious as hitmakers in general for a range of different artists across pop, hip hop and R&B, they helped to craft a sound for Timberlake that sounded fresh and unique. Similarly the credits for Bieber’s Purpose sport a host of the best production and songwriting talent working for the entire pop upperclass. Yet by taking an underground sound and pulling it firmly into the mainstream—as he did with the tropical house aesthetic first heard on "Where Are Ü Now," his collaboration with Jack Ü (aka Skrillex and Diplo)—Bieber cornered an entire market and made everyone forget what a dislikable little turd he is. As far as the general public are concerned, that tropical house sound belongs to Bieber alone.
By contrast, Malay, who shoulders the majority of the work on Mind of Mine, is primarily and inextricably linked with Frank Ocean only, and his work with Zayn is merely a shadow of his work on Channel Orange. Zayn is a technically capable vocalist, but he doesn’t have the richness or depth of Frank Ocean and his lyrics don’t match that sweeping, storytelling standard set by Ocean either. Scoring Malay as his main producer should have been a major boon, but instead it has become yet another hole in the plot. Instead of judging Mind of Mine on its own merit, it’s impossible not to measure it against Channel Orange (or The Weeknd, or Miguel), where Zayn will always come up short. The sense he's some sort of manikin that's been directed along the route of those artists is palpable.
Artists like type-A robot Taylor Swift know the vital importance of an insincere charm offensive, where their fanbase is treated like they matter personally to the artist. By contrast, Zayn’s marketing looks like it was worked out on the back of a box of king-sized Rizla or scrawled on the innards of a Lucozade bottle. One Direction are famously the first pop band to “break” through social media, and their fanbase have gorged for years on constant engagement, a deluge of content and wall to wall radio and TV coverage. Yet Zayn’s digital strategy amounted to a handful of Instagram posts and an unannounced Periscope livestream where he previewed clips from album, which he conducted, lounging Adonis-like, from a staircase. His radio plot was non-existent and he cancelled his only primetime TV appearance in favor of sitting down with Zane Lowe instead. And whereas Swift managed to coax (either grimacing or effusive) confessions of being a Swiftie from all corners of the media by merely massaging her core fanbase and releasing decent pop tunes, Zayn has done everything to ingratiate himself with the cool kids first.
In many ways, Zayn has been presented as an oppressed auteur who smokes weed and drinks whiskey, telling the tastemaking crowd to like him before proving that they should. But Zayn is not an auteur. He is an ex-TV talent show contestant and a former member of the biggest manufactured boyband in the world. His audience is not BBC Jools Holland: painstakingly curated, niche, diverse. It is ITV X Factor: flashy but without substance and slapped on between Take Me Out and I’m a Celeb. When measured against albums purchased by people who buy CDs in supermarkets, Mind of Mine sits at the top end of the scale. But it’s also at the very bottom end of one which posits cool, musically-savvy bloggers as his primary audience. By looking at these relatively small sales, it’s frustratingly difficult to understand how Zayn and his team could neglect “the punter” en masse in favour of a smaller, narrower and pretty much inappropriate demographic.
In fairness to Zayn, the weight of expectation on this release was phenomenal. He is a debut artist, but not really. He is the first breakout from the One Direction behemoth. He is a Muslim artist, having to represent for all young Asians at a time when their existence is deeply fraught. The truth is, for all these reasons, we wanted him to be the next big superstar. We wanted him to threaten Bieber, and we wanted him to prove that he was better than the band he left behind. But maybe what we wanted for Zayn is not what he wanted for himself. His famously shady RT in support of Miley Cyrus—where it was suggested that Cyrus triumphs over Swift, because she does what she wants and doesn’t care about sales—is perhaps more the route he has in that mind of his. After being in a band that smashed almost every sales record that exists, he may have wanted to leave this approach behind. Really what is there left for him to achieve, other than beating Harry Styles to it?